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IU basketball: adjustment by subtraction — the outlook for 2020-21 without Justin Smith

This one is different.

Up until now, the players who had transferred out of head coach Archie Miller’s IU program didn’t play a meaningful role — at least not on game day.

But make no mistake, the fifth transfer out during the Miller era is a significant one.

Senior forward Justin Smith was a starter, led the team in minutes and was IU’s best frontcourt defender.

Whatever you might think about Smith’s jump shot, ball handling abilities or motor, there was a reason why the Illinois native played such a prominent role during his three year stay in Bloomington.

The bottom line — Smith brought a lot of positives to the table for the Hoosiers.

But did the positives outweigh the negatives?  And more important now, are Smith’s minutes replaceable by the players IU has slated to be on the roster in 2020-21?

Here is what we know.

SMITH WASN’T A FIT FOR MILLER

If you look at the players that Miller has recruited since he arrived in Bloomington, one thing is abundantly clear.  Miller loves, no he LOVES versatile forwards that can play on the perimeter.

Smith was given every opportunity to be that guy in 2019-20, as Miller plugged him into the small forward spot alongside Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis.

An effective wing in modern college basketball has to be able to make three-pointers and beat people off the bounce.

What Miller got instead from Smith was a wing that couldn’t make perimeter shots and couldn’t win off the dribble.  Playing in a frontcourt with Brunk and Jackson-Davis, that was an offensive recipe for disaster.

ENTER HUNTER, THOMPSON AND GERONIMO

The solution is plugging in forwards that can stretch defenses while bringing more tenacity to the table on both ends of the floor.

Does Indiana have that guy?  Maybe.  Or perhaps it has parts of that guy in several players.

When it comes to perimeter scoring, Jerome Hunter is the logical choice to step in and take on a prominent role.  Everyone agrees that Indiana needs to become a better three-point shooting team, and the 6-foot-7 Hunter made 42.8 percent of his shots from long range over the last 14 games of the 2019-20 season.

After missing an entire season due to a lower leg condition, Hunter is just what IU needs on the offensive end to create more space on the floor.  But can he defend at a high enough level?

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Race Thompson has shown an ability to guard anyone from Ethan Happ to Lamar Stevens, giving IU a versatile defender that could potentially replace Smith.

“You need guys that are willing to stick their nose in there and do it. And that’s what Race gives us,” Miller said during the season of Thompson.

Thompson is tough and physical, and he produces big numbers on a per-minute basis.  But is he an above the rim athlete that can make big plays in transition?

Jordan Geronimo is a raw and unproven talent, but there is no denying his length and athleticism.  Of the three forwards in the mix for Smith’s minutes, Geronimo is the best athlete.

In reality, the forward trio has strengths that they bring to the table, but like Smith none of Hunter, Thompson or Geronimo have shown enough to lead you to believe that they are the complete package.

No one in this group has the look of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Instead, the answer is going to have to be a more holistic philosophical change that utilizes the strengths of this forward trio simultaneously.

THE TRANSITION TO A SMALLER LINEUP

The solution seems obvious.

Trayce Jackson-Davis is your center, and only in rare situations should he be on the floor with Joey Brunk.

Even if Jackson-Davis develops more of a perimeter game next season, that is simply a bonus.  In a perfect world your five could knock down perimeter shots too.  Yes, there is a concern that Jackson-Davis could get into more foul trouble guarding the block, but that is why you have Brunk ready to go as the highly competent backup center.

At the four will be a combination of Thompson, Hunter and Geronimo.  Thompson makes the most sense here, but you’d like to see him become more of an outside shooter to really lock down the job.

At the three will be Hunter (yes he can play the three or four), possibly Geronimo, and then three guard sets that could include any of Al Durham, Armaan Franklin, Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal on the wing.

You have either Khristian Lander or Rob Phinisee manning the point guard, and then all of the guards, including Lander and Phinisee, can be on the court as the shooting guard.

The idea is to always have three and ideally four players on the floor that are a threat to score from the perimeter, and IU should be able to do that going forward.

Indiana can put more versatile and dynamic offensive lineups on the court in 2020-21 without Smith, especially if expected progress is seen from players like Thompson, Hunter and Franklin.  Those are three players specifically that would appear to have much more room to grow, whereas Smith is likely much closer to his ceiling after three years.

The open question is, without Smith, will Indiana still be able to defend at a high level?


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