Trayce Jackson-Davis was ready to move on from college basketball, even though it wasn’t at all certain that he’d be taken in the NBA Draft if he entered.
After an emotionally draining season played almost entirely without fans that ended with six straight losses and the coach who recruited him getting fired, the Indiana All-American forward was ready to get out of Bloomington and go somewhere he’d get a paycheck, whether that was the NBA or the G-League or some place else.
“When the coaches got fired, my mindset was honestly, I didn’t know who they were going to bring in,” Jackson-Davis said. “I was going to wait anyways, but I was almost dead set on entering the draft and hiring an agent. That was probably two weeks ago.”
But earlier this week, the Hoosiers hired Mike Woodson to replace the fired Archie Miller. In the five days since, Woodson not only convinced Jackson-Davis to stay at Indiana for his junior year but to give a full-throated endorsement of Woodson in a remarkably sincere and open Zoom press conference Friday.
It’s a massive development for Woodson, who took the job Monday with six players in the transfer portal and Jackson-Davis’ decision looming. The former Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks head coach publicly stated that he would “beg” Jackson-Davis to stay with him because he believed he could make Jackson-Davis a better player and that could help the program. Guard Parker Stewart announced earlier in the week that he would also return, and Jackson-Davis’ decision could influence the rest of the players to stay.
Jackson-Davis said he made his decision after a two-hour meeting with Woodson and his family on Thursday.
“He came in and he told us he doesn’t want to rebuild,” Jackson-Davis said. “He wants to win right away. And he told me I’m a big piece to that. After hearing that and hearing an NBA coach tell you that, it just really was a simple decision to come back and play for him, honestly.”
But for a number of reasons, Jackson-Davis’ decision wasn’t all that simple. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-American arrived at Indiana with designs on winning quickly, producing and moving on to the professional ranks swiftly. He wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done like Romeo Langford was, but he didn’t expect to stay too long after that, especially if he produced.
In his first two seasons, he was unquestionably Indiana’s most productive player. As a freshman, he averaged 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game to earn third-team All-Big Ten honors. This year he upped those numbers to 19.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. He was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media, second team All-Big Ten by the coaches, and third-team All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and the Sporting News.
But he didn’t soar up draft boards and was projected as a late second-round pick because of obvious flaws in his game. The left-hander rarely used his right hand to score or handle the ball and almost all of his scoring production came close to the basket. He didn’t attempt a 3-point shot in his first two seasons, and according to hoop-math.com, 70.5 percent of his shots in his freshman year and 67.5 percent of his shots in his sophomore year came at the rim. That was great for his college production because he was being used as a center. However at 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, he’s not quite big enough to be an NBA five-man and power forwards in today’s spaced out league need to show more perimeter skill than he had.
However, after two seasons in college, Jackson-Davis had to wonder if he’d ever get a chance to take his game outside. He was so effective on the block that it made little sense for Miller to move Jackson-Davis away from it, especially this season when fellow big man Joey Brunk missed the whole year due to back surgery and his only real options at center were Jackson-Davis and fellow big man Race Thompson, who started at power forward. Though he might not get drafted high, Jackson-Davis had reason to believe that just being in a professional system, even on a G-League team, he’d have a better chance to develop his game some place that wasn’t too dependent on his scoring.
“Joey was a big part of it,” Jackson-Davis said. “I was just trying to play my role that coach Miller needed me to play. Obviously, I tried to do that to the best of my abilities.”
As a long-time NBA coach, however, Woodson knew very well that Jackson-Davis would have to do something else, so he started his sales pitch to Jackson-Davis by making it clear to him just how far away from being a first-round pick he is at this point.
“The thing that he really told me is the things that I did not want to hear,” Jackson-Davis said. “He told me what I needed to work on. He showed me clips of me playing. He showed me my missed shots, what I should have done in this situation, where I needed to take shots. That’s all my dad talks about. He talks about the things I need to improve on. He never talks about what I’m good at. That right there was already showing me he wants what’s best for me. After he did that, I was sold on him.”
Woodson told Jackson-Davis that he would not only be asked to do the things he needed to improve on, but he would be demanded to do so. He couldn’t just rely on his go-to post moves like a pitcher who lives on his fastball. He’d have to mix it up.
“He basically told me, ‘We’re going to get your right hand going,'” Jackson-Davis said. “‘We’re going to get that right, and we’re going to get your jump shot right.’ He wants me to shoot those shots in games, and if I don’t shoot them, he’s going to take me out of the game. It’s kind of like that. He needs me to be a better player and be a better playmaker and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Woodson convinced Jackson-Davis that he could give him those opportunities without costing the team anything and actually creating better team offense. Woodson has said he wants to run an NBA-style offense with wide-open spacing and more 3-point shooting that would use four players mostly operating on the perimeter and one in the post. The last two seasons, mostly by necessity, the Hoosiers have operated with at least two post players.
“That part of my game is going to open up a lot of things for our team, really,” Jackson-Davis said. “Teams won’t be able to just pack it in. I also believe with Parker coming back and deciding to stay, we’ve already played a few open gyms together. He shoots the ball really well. The spacing on the floor will be a lot better. I also believe Joey being healthy, it will give our team a much better dynamic just because he’s so big and a really good post player. It allows me to be able to go out and handle the ball and do things of that nature.”
And team success matters to Jackson-Davis because he doesn’t just want to be remembered for what he did at Indiana individually. If Woodson makes the Hoosiers better in his first year at the helm, he wants to be a part of it.
Indiana is 32-27 in Jackson-Davis’ two seasons, including 16-23 in Big Ten play. The Hoosiers almost certainly would have been in the NCAA Tournament last season had there been one, but there wasn’t, and they didn’t get a postseason invite of any kind this year. They haven’t been to a tournament since their Sweet 16 run under Tom Crean in 2016.
“I want to get Indiana basketball back on track,” Jackson-Davis said. “That’s my goal. That’s why I came back because I believe in this tradition. I believe what we have here is something special. I want to be one of the reasons why. I don’t want to be someone who ran away when it was tough. Really, all in all, I believe in coach Woodson and I believe in the tradition of Indiana basketball. I believe we can get it back.”
As convinced as Jackson-Davis was, Woodson still had to convince his parents. Jackson-Davis was pretty certain he should return after his first meeting with Woodson. They weren’t quite there yet, his father in particular being uncertain.
That’s why Woodson met with them for two hours Thursday. By the end of that meeting, they too were sold.
“I sat down with him and we talked a little bit and I really liked him,” Jackson-Davis said. “My parents were still dead set on me going to the NBA. I said, ‘How about you come down, dad, and give him a chance and see what he has to say. So that’s what we did. We had a two-hour conversation. Then my dad came out of the room, he said, ‘Give us five minutes.’ So we left coach Woodson’s office, we went into a little meeting room and he said, ‘You’re staying.’ So that’s how that went.”
And that’s how Mike Woodson recruited his first All-American, the one who was already in his program.
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