The Indiana player who some people were worried about coming into the season might be the only reason the Hoosiers are 3-0 instead of 0-3.
Kel’el Ware has started his IU career averaging a double-double — 18.3 points and 10.0 rebounds — to go with 2.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, and just 1.0 turnover and 1.7 fouls in 33 minutes per game.
Before the season Ware said he wanted to prove everybody wrong when it came to talk about his lack of a motor at Oregon a year ago.
He and Indiana coach Mike Woodson had an understanding since he committed in April — Ware was coming to Bloomington to be challenged, and Woodson would be fair but tough in delivering on that challenge.
Early on at Indiana, the 7-foot Arkansas product has his head coach’s approval.
“He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here,” IU coach Mike Woodson said on Thursday. “He’s rebounded the ball. He’s blocked shots. He’s made shots on the perimeter. He’s made shots down low. I just want to keep him in that space.”
The space Woodson is referencing is a good frame of mind, where his sophomore big man is locked in, confident and playing at full throttle.
It’s well documented, Ware’s freshman season in Eugene didn’t go as planned. Viewed as a near lock to be one-and-done, Ware lost his starting role and never play more than 19 minutes in a game after December.
But if Ware has a best memory from his freshman season at Oregon, it came against the team he’ll face Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
A year ago in November, Ware produced what would turn out to be season highs in points (18) and rebounds (9) against UConn.
“Last year probably hurt his stock, because I think in preseason he was considered to be a top 5 pick,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said to assembled media on Friday. “I think he is probably getting some of that stock back with the way he has looked. He is a double-double guy who protects the rim.”
Last year Ware dealt with UConn big man duo Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. This year, it’ll be 7-foot-2 Clingan and 6-foot-10 Samson Johnson.
Ware and Clingan are both on this year’s 20-man watch list for the Jabbar Award, given annually to the nation’s top center. It’s a marquee early season matchup.
The UConn players recall the challenges Ware presented when they faced him last season. If there were motor issues a year ago, the Huskies didn’t notice.
“Super athletic, he had one hell of a game against us,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said.
Clingan says he noticed on film Ware is posting more this year than he did a year ago for Oregon. He has the highest overall offensive rating on the Indiana team so far in his new role. Ware is also functioning well with fellow big man Malik Reneau, who is an underrated passer who has learned not to overcomplicate post entries.
“Kel’el is a big frame, very agile, can move, and just knowing that any step he gets on his defender, he’s got a chance to raise up and get dang near to the top of the backboard, you can throw it anywhere to him,” Reneau said.
Ware likes that he is the focus of the offense thus far at Indiana, and he has the freedom to impact the game in a number of ways.
“I’m more in a groove now with Coach Woodson giving me that role where he trusts me enough to just go make the play and attack the basket, score, even throw it out to my teammates and just play smart on the court,” Ware said.
And he knows he has to keep up his end of the bargain, especially now that schedule is taking a challenging turn.
“As long as I’m playing hard and just giving them that, then we should be good,” Ware said.
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