On a team that returns 78 percent of its minutes from a year ago, there aren’t a ton of clear openings for immediate playing time for newcomers.
When he arrived in Bloomington a month ago, freshman forward Kaleb Banks knew what he was up against.
“Coming in, I expected us to have a pretty good team. I knew that it was going to be competitive during practices,” Banks said on Thursday.
As a high school product in Georgia (Fayette County H.S.), it wasn’t clear what direction Banks would go positionally at the next level.
Was he a three or a four? We called him a “hybrid forward” at times because he really did look like a ‘tweener in the frontcourt. And does it even matter if IU can get to the four-out approach Mike Woodson prefers?
Banks measured at 6-foot-7 last month, meaning he’d be a bit undersized to play power forward in the Big Ten. And with Race Thompson manning that spot now and fellow freshman Malik Reneau a more natural four of the future, the better path for Banks appears to be at the three.
That just so happens to be the spot where Indiana was most vulnerable last season, on both ends of the floor.
“Shooting is a big part of it. We didn’t shoot the ball extremely well this season. You guys know that. You watched us play. And we got to get better in that area. I’d be foolish to say we don’t because we do,” Woodson said following his team’s season-ending loss to St. Mary’s when asked how his team needed to improve. “We got to be better on the wings from a defensive standpoint,” he added.
The early chatter coming out of IU’s scrimmages when the freshmen arrived was that Banks was popping as an offensive threat.
Thompson took the lid off that talk a couple weeks ago.
“He is very talented, big, big wing that can defend, can really shoot the ball, score the ball at all three levels,” Thompson said of Banks. “I think that he’ll be a really fun player to watch, and he’s going to be really fun to play with because he can make shots and he can make plays for his teammates. He’s really impressed me a lot just how comfortable he is, how confident he is in himself being able to make plays.”
Those comments by Thompson and similar remarks by others led you to believe Banks was being evaluated primarily as a three this summer, and he confirmed that on Thursday.
“He (Woodson) still views me as a three,” Banks said. “During the scrimmages, I still play at the three spot. Pretty much I’m still viewed as a three.”
The good news for Banks — the three spot is where the opportunity lies this year.
The bad news — it’s also where the competition is the most intense.
“Fighting for the starter spot, the three spot is really competitive,” Banks said.
Miller Kopp is the successor in the role, and just one of two returning players who shot above 35 percent from three last year. That fact alone will make him difficult to unseat in the starting five.
But Woodson’s end of season comment on wing defense cannot be overlooked. While Kopp improved over the course of the season on that end and was quite good chasing shooters through screens, he struggled laterally and left Indiana exposed at times.
Parker Stewart is the lone starter who left following the 2021-22 season, so the two-spot is wide open. Players Banks is competing with could also claim that spot, including Trey Galloway, Tamar Bates, and C.J. Gunn.
But those three, along with Kopp, Anthony Leal and Jordan Geronimo are all in the mix for minutes at the three as well.
Woodson laid out the criteria for who will claim the minutes — shooting and defense.
Banks came in with a track record for shooting the basketball, and early on, that part of his game seems to be translating against high-major length and athleticism. It was the first thing he pointed to when asked what he can contribute to this team right away.
At 6-foot-7 with a plus-five wingspan and athletic, Banks could prove to be an imposing asset as a perimeter defender as well. That’s the part of his game he’s quickly come to realize needed to improve once he arrived on campus.
“I’ve had to adjust my defense, just being more locked in on defense,” Banks said. “I understand the defensive principles that Coach wanted me to learn and staying ready, locked in on defense, really, on the defensive side.
Banks said he has added 15 pounds over the last month, and no, not the freshman-15 that many young college students pack on. He hopes that 15 pounds of muscle along with high-major college athletic training has helped him address his biggest adjustment to this level.
“The physicality and the speed of the game, I had to really adjust from that going from high school to Indiana.”
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