Back in the spring IU coach Mike Woodson said he wanted to see his All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis use his right hand more often and start shooting more perimeter shots.
We will have to wait until next week in the Bahamas to see where the junior big man stands as it relates to those two developmental areas.
But on Friday we learned that Jackson-Davis has been making other strides since we last saw him on the court nearly five months ago. Woodson quickly cited Jackson-Davis as one of the players who has made the most improvement since he took over the program, and an assist goes to another literal big man on campus.
Former South Florida center Michael Durr was added to the IU roster from the transfer portal soon after Jerome Hunter entered it, and there were several reasons to like the addition of the 7-foot, 250 pound Atlanta product. First and foremost, Durr adds much needed size for the Big Ten grind, he adds depth at the five, and he also should give IU some stability at that spot over the next two years.
But before the ball tips in November, or even next week at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, Durr has been adding value during his brief tenure in Bloomington. And Jackson-Davis has been a major beneficiary.
It is no secret that length and physicality have bothered the 6-foot-9 Jackson-Davis at times during his first two years at IU. It certainly didn’t help his development when friend and teammate Joey Brunk went down with a back injury before the 2020-21 season and never returned to action. On the practice floor Jackson-Davis never had to battle anyone bigger than himself, but he saw the likes of massive fives like Kofi Cockburn, Luka Garza, Zach Edey, and Myles Johnson on game days.
With Durr at workouts and practice every day, Jackson-Davis is growing more accustomed to playing against size, and it is paying off.
“I think he’s (Durr) made Trayce a little bit more competitive because he’s got a bigger guy now that can bang and do things down low when he gets the ball,” Woodson said on Friday.
Jackson-Davis can bring more competitive juice to practice because he has more in the tank as a result of an offseason focus to improve himself physically. Whether due to all of the restrictions of 2020 or otherwise, he felt like he was in better shape for his freshman season more so than year two at Indiana.
“I think the biggest thing I worked on this summer from last summer is definitely my conditioning,” Jackson-Davis said. “I felt like last summer I wasn’t in the best shape I could be like my freshman year. I thought my freshman year I was in shape for the most part. But this year I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Woodson, who is expected to bring a faster-pace and more modern style to Indiana’s offense, has seen that aspect of Jackson-Davis’ improvement as well.
“From the time we started to where we are now, he’s made some improvement in terms of how he’s running and playing,” Woodson said. “He’s playing, to me, much more aggressive than he did in some of the tapes that I watched last season. And we’re going to need him to be that guy, the guy that plays aggressive and if he can average 20 and double rebounds, that’s a major bonus, again, for our ballclub.”
It is difficult to imagine that Jackson-Davis is going to make monumental strides over the already impressive 19.1 points and 9.0 rebounds he averaged per game in 2020-21. Those numbers were already good enough for third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten.
But if he is in better shape, the rebounding numbers could certainly see a bump, and if he can find a way to be more efficient offensively, his point production could improve as well. And that is where Durr comes in.
Every day, Jackson-Davis is now forced to figure out how to earn his buckets going up against his massive teammate.
“He’s a really, really big body,” Jackson-Davis said of Durr. “He also just brings a lot of physicality. He’s a Big Ten big. Playing against him I’ve noticed that from the get-go. … Playing against him, being able to work on my moves. Playing against someone that’s an actual seven-footer, not being able to have that last year, I really have to work on my jump hooks, all that stuff, getting the ball up, touch around the rim, not being able to just force things up.”
Of course Durr is more than just practice fodder for Jackson-Davis. He is expected to play a role this year — at the very least as the backup center. That is a spot Race Thompson filled last year, perhaps reluctantly. Both he and Jackson-Davis likely saw too many minutes last season, and that is especially true if they weren’t in optimal shape.
With Durr at the five, that frees up Thompson to focus his development on his more natural four spot, which in Woodson’s system will mean that he spends much more time on the perimeter. Thompson seemed enthusiastic about what he sees from Durr.
“He’s like a really good, big body we needed,” Thompson said. “Got a lot of post moves, strong defender. He can make shots outside, too. I’m excited to play with him, really let you guys see what he can do.”
While Durr is just 4-of-24 for his career shooting from behind the arc, he is a threat from the mid-range and seems to be moving his range out near the 3-point arc. Both Thompson and Jackson-Davis alluded to Durr’s ability to space the floor, which is providing another practice benefit as they are forced to play more defense on the perimeter. It would be the icing on the Durr cake if he can add outside shooting to the 13.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per-40 minutes he produced at South Florida last season.
Whether Durr is a high-volume producer in 2021-22 for IU remains to be seen, but he is already delivering high value, still several months before the season begins. Of that, Jackson-Davis is convinced.
“He is a really great player,” Jackson-Davis said. “He is going to help us a lot this year. I think it’s been really good for both of us honestly.”
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