Coming into Mike Woodson’s first season as the Indiana head coach, there was a lot of talk about his preferred 4-out, 1-in offensive system.
As that first season progressed and the strengths and weaknesses of the team emerged, however, 4-out largely went, well, out, and a new term — “buddy ball” — was heard with regularity as IU started to play more of a two-man post game with star forwards Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis.
But with Jackson-Davis and Thompson spending more time in the paint, Woodson found himself straying from the offensive system that made him a successful NBA coach. And as Indiana’s opponents became bigger and more athletic as the season progressed, the offense has struggled at times.
“You play to your strengths,” is how Woodson described in late December the offensive adjustments made from what he had in mind when he took the job.
There is no doubt that Thompson and Jackson-Davis are willing passers and effective in the two-man game. In addition to being the team’s two leading scorers, they have 36 and 38 assists, respectively on the season in 21 games.
“They’ve done that since The Bahamas trip, and it has carried on throughout the season,” Woodson said on Monday night of the frontcourt duo’s willingness to share the ball, especially with one another.
But while there is no doubting their effectiveness, there is also no debate that Thompson and Jackson-Davis have posed relatively limited threats to score more than 10-feet from the basket. That has meant congestion both for them and the perimeter players looking to attack the rim.
Woodson has had few options. Thompson is highly efficient from 2-point range, and he is too valuable of a defender and rebounder to take off the court. But Indiana’s offense has suffered, with the Hoosiers currently less efficient than they were a year ago according to KenPom.com.
Thompson opened the season mired in a three-point shooting drought that eventually led to a 3-of-27 start from long range. In reality, Thompson’s shooting from distance was more the norm than just a shooting slump. Despite showing promise as a stretch-4 in high school, Thompson was 9-of-55 (16.3 percent) for his Indiana career, and the prior Indiana coaching staff appeared to have the right outlook as the program transitioned to Woodson.
“When I took the job, some of the coaches that were here, you know, I’m a great listener, I like to pick my coaches. I asked about Race,” Woodson said before the season. “Some of the coaches said ‘Well, he can’t handle the ball that well. You probably don’t want him handling it. Can’t shoot out on the floor.'”
But Woodson has kept letting Thompson shoot from behind-the-arc. He has more 3-point attempts already this season than his previous three years combined.
“We’ve given him the latitude to do it,” Woodson said Monday. “I’ve never took that away from him.”
To his credit, Thompson never stopped shooting either, and finally he has seen some success. The Plymouth, Minn. product has made five of his last six attempts from three over the last three games. He has nearly as many makes in that brief stretch as he had over his first three years in the program (six).
“I think that it’s just the confidence that the coaches give me,” Thompson said on Saturday after the Maryland game, his second straight 2-of-2 performance from behind-the arc. “I was struggling from the 3-point line pretty much the whole season, and they urged me to keep shooting.
“I work on it every single day after practice, before practice. So I mean, it was just, in time, the hard work you put in will show, and I think that’s really what it is. And just the confidence that they keep giving me.”
Thompson’s shooting success has extended to another area where he has historically struggled — the free throw line. Over the last eight games the career 64.1 percent free throw shooter has made 21-of-26 (80.1 percent) from the stripe.
Those added free throws could be the difference in a win at some point if he continues to convert at a high rate. But it is Thompson’s newfound ability to knock down threes that is a potential game-changer for Indiana.
Outside of Thompson from close-range, Indiana’s two greatest strengths on the offensive end right now are Jackson-Davis operating in the paint with space, and Xavier Johnson attacking the basket with space. Both are likely to find much more room to operate with defenses forced to honor Thompson’s 3-point shot.
If the trend continues, Woodson might be able to revert to an offensive style that better resembles what he has used in the past as an NBA coach, and better suits his star players on this Indiana roster.
“I’ve always coached with a four that can make the long ball,” Woodson said on Monday. “I mean it’s pivotal in terms of our offensive flow and how we want to generate offense. If he continues to do that it will make us even better because now teams can’t leave him, they’ve got to play him honestly, and that helps us from an offensive standpoint in terms of our spacing and getting the ball where it needs to go.”
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