By Dustin Dopirak —
Jordan Geronimo and the coaches in his orbit always had a sense that, for him, college basketball could come with a more painful than normal adjustment period.
Geronimo came equipped with both the body and the mind for the Big Ten with a muscled-up 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame, a 7-foot wingspan and a pogo-stick vertical to go with it. His coaches raved about his basketball IQ and his energy level and he got the attention of high-major Division I schools when he proved during the summer between his junior and senior years that he could knock down 3-pointers.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for being a smart player and a student of the game,” said Max Gordon, his coach at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. “He watched more tape than anyone in his time at St. Paul’s.”
The problem was, however, that Geronimo had only experienced so much high-level basketball by the time he arrived at Indiana. His New England prep school — St. Paul’s in New Hampshire — isn’t one of the several in the region that doubles as a national basketball powerhouse, and he didn’t make a name for himself on the summer travel circuit until he joined Mass Rivals on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit between his sophomore and junior year.
“I didn’t really have that much basketball experience,” Geronimo said. “I just started playing AAU basketball in my junior year. I played at St. Paul’s school, and coming from that to Indiana basketball, the pace was a lot different. Coming into the Big Ten and trying to make a name for myself, it was a harder task than I expected.”
And until Thursday, at least, it was starting to wear on him. Indiana coach Archie Miller had mentioned several times publicly that he wanted to get Geronimo more game action, but it wasn’t coming, in part because his inexperience on the floor was showing in games and in practice. Not being a focal point of the offense and not being able to roam on defense and overwhelm opposing offensive players, he struggled with positioning on both sides of the floor.
Before Thursday night’s game against Iowa, he’d played a total of 58 minutes and had appeared in just nine of the Hoosiers’ 14 games. The only time he’d seen double-figure minutes were in the Hoosiers’ wins over Tennessee Tech and North Alabama. He hadn’t played more than six minutes in a Big Ten game and had a combined total of 20 minutes in five appearances in league play.
“Jordan’s been down on himself a little bit the last couple of weeks with how he’s been playing,” sophomore center Trayce Jackson-Davis said Thursday. “This week at practice, there was an emphasis on getting his confidence back up.”
It’s hard to imagine 10 minutes of playing time doing more for a player’s confidence and playing time than Thursday’s performance by Geronimo has and will. The Hoosiers’ had their best defensive performance of the season, holding Iowa’s explosive offense to a season-low scoring output in an 81-69 win over the Hawkeyes, and they couldn’t have done it without a critical contribution from Geronimo.
Jackson-Davis and redshirt junior Race Thompson were, until Thursday night, the only two Hoosiers who had played meaningful minutes at center, but at the 8:10 mark of the second half, they each had four fouls. Someone had to step in at the 5 to take on Iowa center Luka Garza, a returning All-American, the nation’s leading scorer and the frontrunner to be consensus national player of the year.
The 6-11, 265-pound Garza had 28 points and 12 rebounds on the evening, but from the time Geronimo went in at 8:10 to the time he came out at 4:25, Garza missed his only field goal attempt and scored one point. In that period, the Hoosiers turned a two-point Iowa lead to a six-point advantage of their own. It was in the middle of the 23-3 Indiana run that turned the game around.
“I just tried to play hard, as hard as I could,” Geronimo said. “Coach put me in there for a reason. Coach put me in to guard him. That’s what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to do anything different. I just tried my best and I wasn’t going to let him do what he usually does.”
That was just part of a strong all-around performance that Miller called Geronimo’s best as a college player. He also made all three of his field goals, two of them being dunks, for a career-high seven points. He dished out an assist, grabbed a rebound and drew two fouls.
“I’m really proud of him, honestly,” Jackson-Davis said. “Really, really proud of him.”
Gordon expected a performance like this would come eventually. He knew there would be a learning curve, but one that Geronimo would be able to manage in the course of his freshman year, and he believes Thursday’s game is a sign that he has.
“What I’ve seen so far at IU is the game incrementally slowing down for him,” Gordon said. You could tell he was nervous and getting used to the bright lights early on, but he seems a little bit more comfortable and confident each time I watch. He’s more confident in getting to the right spots on the court, in his passes, and in his shooting stroke too.”
Geronimo is still very much in his development stage, so he still has some distance to travel before he’s ready to play starter’s minutes. There are facets of the game he literally knew nothing about before he got to Bloomington.
“I learned a lot about positioning, being in the right spots at the right time,” Geronimo said. “When to move and when to be available for a pass. That’s something I didn’t really know about coming into college, how to move.”
But the fact that he was able to hold his own against the nation’s most dominant post player gives the Hoosiers reason to find more minutes for him. Thompson and Jackson-Davis certainly need more time on the bench to take breathes. And if he can stay on the floor on defense, that could give him more opportunity to show off an intriguing offensive game. He can get well above the rim and score from there, but he can also shoot from outside. He was a 38 percent 3-point shooter as a junior and so far he’s hit on two of his five 3-point attempts as a collegian. The Hoosiers rank 12th in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage (.333) and last in 3-pointers per game (6.2), so anyone else they could put on the floor who can hit from outside would help.
But Step 1 was just to get Geronimo to be more comfortable on the floor, and Thursday’s appearance seems to have accomplished that mission.
“Going in there and coming out with a pretty good outcome, it just lets me know that hard work pays off,” Geronimo said. “There’s nothing I do here that is unnecessary. We do everything for a reason.”
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