In the immediate aftermath of his team’s season-ending NCAA Tournament loss to St. Mary’s in March, IU basketball head coach Mike Woodson was asked how his Hoosiers needed to improve the most during the offseason.
After a fifth straight season outside the top-200 in 3-point shooting percentage, and a year spent struggling to guard the likes of versatile wings such as Jaden Ivey, Johnny Davis, Malaki Branham, and others, his answer wasn’t surprising.
Shooting and wing defense were jobs 1 and 1A.
Since he was brought in to make 3-pointers, and played a key role in Indiana’s wing defense, Woodson’s answer could fairly be interpreted, for better or worse, as partially pointed in the direction of small forward Miller Kopp.
The Northwestern transfer started every game in his first year with Indiana last season, but he didn’t always play starter’s minutes late in contests, when Woodson tried to make sure his perimeter defense was on point. And while Kopp’s 36 percent effort shooting from beyond-the-arc was respectable, it wasn’t quite at the level expected of a player brought in specifically for that purpose.
There was a point early in his time at IU at when Kopp’s play on the defensive end led to his coach calling him out.
“He got called the worst defender by Coach Woody (early last season),” Indiana senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said on a podcast published earlier this week.
But somehow over the course of the season, Kopp went from Woodson’s defensive doghouse to this:
“I thought his defense last year was phenomenal,” Woodson said last month. “I mean, from where he started, when people thought he couldn’t really defend, he was one of our best perimeter defenders last year, which was kind of nice to see.”
Kopp’s ability to develop over the course of the season from worst to phenomenal was no accident according to Woodson.
“He’s very coachable,” Woodson said. “In the big league, we call him a true pro, because he listens and he tries to do all the things that’s asked of him,” Woodson said.
No, Kopp didn’t morph into a lockdown on-the-ball defender overnight. But he did find other ways to be an asset to a team that ended the season with the most efficient defense in the Big Ten.
“I feel like I was an anchor on defense for the team in terms of being a vocal leader, a guy who knows where everybody is supposed to be,” Kopp said earlier this month. “That’s something I definitely think I improved on. It was a point of emphasis for me, and slowly improving and getting better and better.”
Kopp said one of his primary areas of focus during the offseason was to improve his conditioning level. That was part of the slow start a year ago when an ankle injury in the Bahamas set him back. He’ll need everything in his arsenal to be sharp if he’s to hold off a half-dozen teammates vying for playing time at the three spot. Trey Galloway, Tamar Bates, Jordan Geronimo, Anthony Leal, Kaleb Banks, and C.J. Gunn are all in the hunt for minutes.
Interestingly, Jackson-Davis said on the same podcast Kopp may get some minutes at power forward this season as well, another spot where there’s a ton of competition.
While his defense improved last season, Kopp’s real key to the floor, wherever he plays, comes on the other end. He made 39.6 percent of his threes as a sophomore in 2019-20 on his highest shot volume (5.3 attempts per game). The 6-foot-7 Houston, Texas product will be near impossible to run out of the starting five if he can replicate that kind of production, and he knows it.
“I’ve got to make shots when they find me,” he said when asked what his role was on this team. “I’m not a guy who’s gonna be coming off pick-and-rolls. So for me it is to be opportunistic, when the ball finds me, make a play and shoot when I’m open. It’s pretty simple.”
As point guard Xavier Johnson and Jackson-Davis started to find their groove late in the season playing a two-man game, defenses were forced to choose between sticking to Kopp on the perimeter or helping some on that surging duo. During a six-game stretch that corresponded with some of IU’s best play starting with a road win over Minnesota and ending with a loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Kopp went 12-of-29 from three, or 41.4 percent on 4.8 attempts per game.
With the addition of a second talented primary ball handler to the mix in freshman point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, opposing defenses are likely to find themselves in plenty of binds once again. That should help Kopp replicate his late season output from a year ago. And thought of as an elite on-ball defender, Hood-Schifino might make whatever defensive shortcomings remain with Kopp easier to mask. Last year some of Kopp’s weaknesses as a defender were compounded by the presence of Parker Stewart, who had similar deficiencies.
With a year under his belt in his system, Woodson is confident Kopp will be ready to capitalize on both ends of the floor.
“I like everything about Miller,” Woodson said. “I’ve just got to get him making some shots for us. Having a taste of what Indiana basketball is all about now, I think he’ll be a lot better this season.”
MORE PRESEASON PLAYER PREVIEWS:
- Close friends Hood-Schifino and Reneau carry big expectations
- Jackson-Davis knows better than to celebrate long-awaited first three
- Logan Duncomb’s teammates are impressed with his development
- Trey Galloway is back to 100 percent after offseason surgery
- Mike Woodson points to Tamar Bates first for breakout player
- Jordan Geronimo believes he’s in right place to reach vast potential
- Hard nose C.J. Gunn plans to scratch his way to the floor
- Kaleb Banks impressing at position where there’s opportunity
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