Indiana’s 12 round knockout over Ohio State on Saturday wasn’t for the faint of heart.
If you got 19 minutes in that Big Ten slugfest, it’s because your coach thought you were doing something right.
It is hard not to look at Indiana redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter’s year-to-date stat line and grimace a bit, especially the shooting numbers. 32 percent from the field overall and 15 percent from three-point range will do that.
But Indiana head coach Archie Miller isn’t necessarily looking at Hunter’s shot chart when he decides whether to put him in a game, and whether to keep him in.
The third year IU head coach has said recently that if anyone wants to stay on the floor with this team, they need to be sound defensively first.
Against arguably the best opponent that Indiana has faced all season, Hunter saw his most minutes in two months — and Miller was pleased with the effort.
“Jerome Hunter played the best game of his college career, and he gave the best minutes all season long at that wing position I think that we’ve had that was able to give Justin a break, move Justin alongside with two bigs with foul trouble,” Miller said.
An 0-for-1 effort from the field by Hunter isn’t what left such a strong impression with Miller on Saturday against the No. 11 Buckeyes.
“Jerome impacted the game in a real positive way, in particular defensively. But he’s big, he’s physical, he’s going to get more confident, get more rhythm,” Miller continued. “The guy has really had to teach himself how to play basketball again, but I thought his minutes were good.
“Sometimes your getting it done isn’t shooting, sometimes your getting it done is what Jerome did today. Played really hard and gave us great minutes where we felt confident with him out there.”
Miller’s reference to Hunter having to teach himself the game again of course refers to the Ohio product missing the entire 2018-19 season with a lower leg condition that required surgery.
“He’s a true freshman, whether he wants to admit it or not,” Miller said of his 6-foot-7 wing.
The reality is that Hunter is less than a true freshman, because he hadn’t played in a competitive game in a year and a half coming into the 2019-20 season. High school to college is difficult jump for most. Taking a year off without even really practicing and then trying to go right into high major college basketball is asking a lot.
“He didn’t take one rep in practice last year,” Miller said. “So as you watch him out there, everyone is like, all right, we’ve got Jerome. Well, Jerome didn’t play or practice for a whole year.”
The result has been that unreliable jump shot, and a level of uncertainty when it comes to how he can impact games.
Hunter was a top 50 recruit coming out of high school and he appeared to be on track for a productive freshman season before that undisclosed condition derailed everything in October, 2018.
Like most high school stars, Hunter was a scorer at the prep level. He averaged 20.2 points and grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game while Pickerington North posted a record of 20-5 his senior year.
Coming off the bench, Hunter’s instincts are telling him to score when he enters the game. But after a year off, that part of his game isn’t where it needs to be.
That’s okay with Miller, who is looking for other ways that his long and versatile forward can make an impact.
“When you come off the bench and trying to figure out how to impact the team, in his mind it’s offense, it’s offense,” Miller said. “You’ve got to get younger players and guys that are new to the game to understand you impact the game so much more defensively as a young guy because when you screw up on defense, you come out. You don’t have that rope.”
With his length, quick feet and comfort on the perimeter, Hunter gives Indiana something they don’t have a lot of in their regular rotation.
Hunter guarded Ohio State’s Andre Wesson, who was a difficult cover at times for the rest of the team and led the Buckeyes in scoring. Wesson only scored two points with Hunter in the game, and those were transition points that cannot be specifically pinned on him.
The Hoosiers have a stable of guards and post players, but a true wing that can play inside and out on both ends is missing.
If Hunter can continue to impact games positively without scoring, Miller believes that he will eventually regain his rhythm on the offensive end.
“As he plays more minutes, my hope would be that you see the guy that was at the foul line making shots, becomes a little bit more comfortable from three,” Miller said.
His teammates saw a guy get an opportunity on the court that he is earning in practice.
“He’s a good player,” senior guard Devonte Green said. “He knows how to get his touches near the rim, and he knows how to finish around the rim or draw fouls, and he comes to practice to work every day. I think he deserves the night he had tonight.”
An example of Hunter’s offensive versatility came in the first half when, while playing on the perimeter he threw a post entry pass to De’Ron Davis. When Hunter’s man collapsed on Davis in the paint, Hunter immediately dove to the rim, got a pass back from Davis and was able to get his shot off and draw a foul in traffic.
With teams continuing to pack the paint until IU can shoot them out of that scheme, plays like that highlight what makes Hunter unique.
While shots from the field continue to be a challenge, Hunter is making free throws. He made 5-of-6 against the Buckeyes on Saturday. Whether at the line or behind the arc, Hunter’s shot mechanics look good. It seems like just a matter of time until he has a break out game on the offensive end.
But until then, Hunter simply needs to do everything else right and stay on the floor.
“He’s physical, and he gives us another guy in there that as he gets more confidence, he’s going to be a good player for us,” Miler said. He doesn’t understand why he’s got a tight rope, but he’s got to understand like stay out of the way on offense and make sure you’re guarding your butt off, and the longer you play, then your offense will start to get a little bit easier for you.”
On the defensive end, Hunter had a play where he was able to quickly rotate over from the help side and use his length to effect what looked like was going to be an easy layup for OSU’s Kyle Young. Instead, Hunter bothered Young’s attempt and IU got the rebound and went the other direction. That’s a play that a smaller guard without Hunter’s length could not have made.
“He was a big difference maker for us in this game,” Miller said. “He held serve on defense more than he did on offense, but he made some good plays for us. Hopefully this is a confidence booster for him.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for Hunter over the last year, including through the first two months of the season once he was fully cleared to return.
But Miller sees all of the necessary intangibles for Hunter to navigate these rough patches and eventually get over the hump and be the player that everyone thought he could be coming out of high school.
“Jerome loves basketball, and he’s a very competitive guy, and he’s a team guy,” Miller said.
You can follow us on Twitter: @daily_hoosier
Find us on Facebook: thedailyhoosier
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”
Seven ways to support completely free IU coverage at no additional cost to you.