It is too soon to talk about season turning points, but here is one to keep in your back pocket.
Trailing at home against Northwestern 50-48, Indiana guard Al Durham missed a free throw badly. As the ball caromed off the rim towards the sidelines, Joey Brunk’s hand emerged seemingly out of nowhere. After Brunk was able to tap the ball into the backcourt, he flew into his own teammates on the IU bench.
Durham was able to secure the loose ball and would end up back at the foul line where he would tie the game at 50 apiece. The sequence capped off a 10-0 run as the Hoosiers were able to pull even with the Wildcats and eventually avoid disaster with a win at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
The victory over Northwestern was the first of a stretch that has now seen IU win four of their last five in league play.
Sacrificing his body and beating smaller, quicker players to a loose ball, the play by Brunk wasn’t one you always see from a 6-foot-11 big man.
But the effort was something that Brunk’s teammates and coaches see every day.
“He’s given his absolute max on everything that he’s doing,” Indiana head coach Archie Miller said on Thursday night after a 67-63 win over Michigan State. “You never question his effort.”
While Brunk’s effort hasn’t been in question, there was a time earlier in the season when it looked like effort alone might not be enough.
Playing at Madison Square Garden in New York against UConn at the Jimmy V Classic, Brunk had about as bad of a first half as you could imagine.
The Indianapolis native was 0-of-4 from the field including several shots that were blocked, he had one rebound, and Brunk had multiple defensive mistakes as well.
Seemingly benched for poor play with 13:29 to go in the first half, it looked like Brunk’s day was done. Maybe he couldn’t hang against high major competition?
Brunk got another shot after the break.
More than just physically tough, Brunk showed everyone what he was about mentally in the second half.
“To his credit, he stayed with it,” Miller said after the UConn game. “He didn’t get down.”
Brunk scored nine second half points, including seven in a key stretch with less than eight minutes to go as IU pulled out a tough victory over the Huskies.
Since that second half against UConn, Brunk has continued to elevate his production.
Over the last eight games the graduate transfer from Butler has averaged 9.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest while playing 27 minutes or more in seven of those eight contests.
While the numbers are tangible evidence that Brunk is clearly trending in the right direction, his value to the team cannot be evaluated merely by looking at statistics.
“I can’t really put it in weight but it’s not measurable what Joe’s meant to us,” Miller said on Thursday night. “His everyday approach is something, as a coach, you marvel at, the work ethic. And there’s no fake work ethic. There’s no — I mean, he’s at it every day.”
Not only is Brunk at it every day, he’s bringing his teammates along.
Player-driven leadership is not something that Miller has had an abundance of during his time in Bloomington. But it seems clear that is changing.
“He’s constantly trying to work on his game,” freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said on The Ride with JMV on Friday. “He’s in the gym every night. He always invites me. We go workout together. He just wants to see everyone get better really.
“Joey is a great teammate first and foremost. He just wants to win. He’s a guy that’s going to give you energy. Whenever we’re in droughts he’s a guy that’s going to pick us up.”
Brunk isn’t an elite athlete. His physical limitations seemed to be on display in that first half in New York last month.
But whatever may be lacking when it comes to things like his vertical jump and quickness, Brunk seems to be able to more than compensate for it with effort.
And for Brunk, the effort that he is able to expend on the court is a byproduct of a behind the scenes work ethic that really stands out to his head coach.
“Joe works on his strength and conditioning more than any player during the season that I’ve been around,” Miller said. “He’s really in great shape and he’s really taking care of his body.”
All of that effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by Brunk’s teammates, especially the younger, more impressionable players.
“He always wants to get better,” Jackson-Davis said. “And so basically — he’s an energy giver. He gives everyone energy. He tries to be a leader for our team and I think our guys are feeding off of that.”
The effort that Brunk is putting in right now on a day-to-day basis isn’t just mindless pounding of the rock.
Not all hard work is equal, and those improving statistics are not by chance or good luck.
The 22 year old Brunk is putting in the right kind of work — and he is getting results.
“For a first-year player in our system, learning what’s going on with new players — he’s improved as much as any player I’ve been around from month-to-month, Miller said on Thursday night.
“If you look at October and November, early December to late December and now January to late January, I mean he has absolutely brought us production that it just means the world. To have that type of size, his ability level, he can score the ball. He moved tonight on ball screens as well as he has all year. But to say he hasn’t impacted our team immensely would be an understatement.”
Brunk has been the complete package for Miller through 19 games, on and off the court. It wasn’t clear that was going to be the case six weeks ago, and it certainly wasn’t clear six months ago.
Many reasonably wondered what exactly the Hoosiers might be getting from a guy that averaged just 7.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in just over 18 minutes a game for Butler last year — by far his most productive season with the Bulldogs.
Clearly Brunk is delivering more statistically this year than he has in the past.
But as Miller said, what Brunk really brings is immeasurable.
“Part of it is just his attitude and the way he works,” Miller said. “He’s an unbelievable kid. And that’s why we wanted to bring him in when we had a chance to get him is he brings such a high-character level to the deal.”
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