This isn’t the way it is supposed to go.
In fact, at least in some ways Rob Phinisee’s career trajectory has gone the opposite of what you’d expect.
He was a hero just over a month into his freshman season when he drained a 30-footer at the buzzer to sink Butler in Indianapolis in 2018. More than anything else, that moment sent the expectations of Phinisee sky high. Ever since he has been fighting to get back to and stay on that mountain top, only to now find himself likely running as the backup point guard for the first time ever to open his senior season.
You’d think he would be bitter about likely starting the season on the bench behind Xavier Johnson, but Phinisee’s perspective on the situation speaks volumes about the 22-year-old’s maturity level.
“It’s good for me,” Phinisee said of his competition for playing time with Johnson at the Big Ten’s media day. “If I want to play at the next level it’s going to be like that anyway. It’s going to help both of us push each other and it’s going to make our team better to have two guys who can make plays with the ball and create for others.”
Those aren’t just hollow words from Phinisee. They aren’t just soundbites for the media. That he was even at the Big Ten media day representing the team gives a good insight on where he stands in the eyes of his coaches and teammates. That isn’t a duty typically assigned to a backup point guard who has checked out on his team.
But still, Mike Woodson wasn’t sure what he had with Phinisee when he took over the program in March.
A career 36 percent shooter from the field, Phinisee has spoken openly about a lack of confidence. At times he thinks too much rather than playing instinctively, as his former AAU coach told us in February.
“Rob is caring so much that he doesn’t want to make the mistake,” Indiana Elite coach Mike Fox said at the time. “He doesn’t want to be the one that turns the ball over or takes a bad shot. He wants to take care of it. Sometimes he overthinks it.”
Woodson hasn’t concerned himself with Phinisee’s ups and downs or what he has or hasn’t done over the last three years.
Instead, the new coach has offered Phinisee a clean slate in a new system, and the results to this point have been a pleasant surprise.
“I try to evaluate players based on them dealing with me now. I can’t look back in the past and look at the things Rob has done and hasn’t done,” Woodson said. “For me he’s been a treat. I think he’s been one of the most bright spots over the last three months in terms of running our ballclub and getting things done on both sides of the floor.”
If Phinisee truly has taken a step forward, Woodson could have a rare luxury of riches at point guard. Johnson and Phinisee have 150 high major starts between them. There will be injuries, foul trouble and off nights, but if all goes well, there won’t ever be a major drop-off at point guard.
That is exactly how things played out in The Bahamas.
“Rob was ready, Xavier got in foul trouble in the first game, I threw Rob right in and we never missed a beat,” Woodson said of the first game in The Bahamas.
Phinisee’s struggles with confidence seemed to reach a new high as his junior season wore on. He made just 15-of-57 shots (26 percent) to end the season. After making just 1-of-4 free throws at a Big Ten Tournament first round game he was booed by the first fans he had played in front of in a year.
“I feel like obviously last year I didn’t have the season I wanted to. I feel like a lot of people counted me out, forgot about how good I was,” Phinisee said before the team left for The Bahamas.
His teammates recognized the struggle too, but also have watched Phinisee emerge in the months that followed.
“Last year I feel like it was a tough year on him, but this summer he got his confidence back and I feel like he’s playing ball at a really high level right now and we’re going to need it from him going forward,” Trayce Jackson-Davis said.
What gave Phinisee the boost of new life?
“New coaching staff and everything, new offense, just instilled the confidence for me, helped me to continue to be a leader, continue to get better each day,” he said.
While both his coaches and teammates see a new Rob Phinisee, some of his reluctance to play instinctively remains.
Despite averaging 30 points a game in high school, he continues to be hesitant at times when it comes taking shots.
“My problem with Rob is I just got to get him to shoot more,” Woodson said. “I’m telling him it’s okay to shoot the basketball. I don’t know if he’s had coaches tell him in the past, but I’m telling him it’s okay to do that. I gotta basically cuss him out to shoot the ball.”
What has never been a problem is Phinisee’s play on the defensive end.
“I don’t think there’s a better defender in the league than Rob Phinisee,” assistant coach Dane Fife said soon after he was hired in April.
Johnson is a strong on the ball defender as well, and the prospect of always having one of the pair at the top of the defense for 40 minutes a game means IU should pose a defensive challenge few teams can match.
Phinisee may be the guy that comes off the bench to continue that defensive pressure when the season opens, but this feels like a battle for playing time that will continue well into the season.
“Rob has made a big jump, so that point guard position has been very competitive,” Woodson said.
Phinisee seems to have the right perspective on things to continue to make that a healthy competition.
And if Woodson’s cussing gets through to him, that wonky career trajectory could end up right where it should be — at its highest point.
MORE 2021-22 IU BASKETBALL PLAYER PREVIEWS:
- Xavier Johnson can change the game with his speed.
- Trayce Jackson-Davis can improve even without the jump shot and right hand
- Race Thompson is expected to shoot the ball
- Michael Durr gives IU much-needed size
- Logan Duncomb plans to hustle his way to floor
- Khristian Lander in a good environment to develop and reach his potential
- Miller Kopp can help cure what has ailed IU from 3-point range
- Trey Galloway can thrive in Indiana’s new offensive system
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