During each of Rob Phinisee’s four drives to the paint for buckets in Indiana’s tournament-resumé stabilizing win over Minnesota on Wednesday night, the impact and the value of his mind was evident.
On the first with 8:32 to go in the first half, he got the ball at the right elbow after an offensive rebound by Race Thompson and saw Minnesota center Liam Robbins as the only player in front of him, but also found point guard Marcus Carr cheating over in his direction looking to either help or switch. Phinisee threw a pass fake in his direction to get him to back off so he had Robbins in isolation and blew past the 7-footer with a bum ankle for an easy layup.
On the second with 3:25 left in the half, he took a solid high ball screen from Thompson at the top of the key and found Robbins dropping along the left edge of the paint and used a hesitation dribble to get him off balance, then blew by him with his left hand and crossed over to his right for the finish once he had Robbins beat.
On third with 18:40 to go in the second, he got the ball at the top of the key on an offensive rebound and noticed Robbins trying to hedge behind a ball screen set by Trayce Jackson-Davis. Instead of going right around the screen and dribbling into the 7-footer, he went left and blew past his primary defender Jamal Mashburn Jr. along the left edge of the paint until he saw the 6-8 Brandon Johnson right in front of the rim and pulled up for an easy bank shot. On the last one with 4:40 to go in the game, he sensed that Minnesota’s defense was scrambled when he took a dribble handoff from Armaan Franklin blowing past Robbins again for a right-handed layup.
On each of the four plays, and especially the first three, Phinisee scored in part because of quick-thinking and savvy, using his mind like a weapon. That’s what IU coach Archie Miller has been asking for from Phinisee, because on too many occasions his mind has served as a roadblock preventing him from anything that could possibly considered a risk.
Even after his 10-point, six-assist performance against Minnesota, Phinisee heads into Saturday’s home game against struggling Michigan State averaging 7.4 points and 2.7 assists on the season. The Hoosiers expected more from him by now in his third season with the program with 63 starts going back to the beginning of his freshman year, 80 appearances and 2,044 college minutes under his belt. They’ve continued to see too much passive play from him, and that’s contributed to both his slow progression and that of the program. In Miller’s fourth season the Hoosiers have yet to make an NCAA Tournament — they almost certainly would have made it had there been one last season but in the bottom half of the bracket — and they are very much on the bubble this season at 12-9 overall, 7-7 in the Big Ten.
“In my opinion he has been worrying about offense too much,” Miller said Wednesday night “On if his shot is going to go in, worrying about a turnover here and there. He is starting to get dead on his feet. We don’t need Rob, to be honest with you, to be anything other than try like crazy to be the leader on defense, push the ball, make guys better, shoot when you are open.”
Phinisee has always been a thinker with an advanced understanding of how to read defenses, how to take advantage of angles and how to get the ball to teammates in the best possible position to put the ball in the bucket. But before he arrived at Indiana, he wasn’t the worrier Miller said he has become. In four seasons mostly as a starter at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, he had little reason to play with nervousness or fear. He scored 2,023 points there, including 29.4 per game as a senior, and he led Lafayette to 93 wins in four years including a run to the Class 4A state title game in his sophomore year before it lost to Romeo Langford’s New Albany squad.
He was every bit as effective with Indiana Elite on the AAU Gauntlet summer travel circuit, and his coaches at the time never saw the sort of timidity they sometimes see in his game now.
“The confidence waning has been something that has been new for him,” Indiana Elite coach Mike Fox said.
That being said, it’s not a complete surprise that he feels a little less confident at the next level. Phinisee is extremely conscientious, which can lead to fearing mistakes and becoming risk-averse. That’s why he has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1, but he is sometimes too eager to get the ball out of his hand.
“Rob is caring so much that he doesn’t want to make the mistake,” Fox said. “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.”
According to both Fox and Miller, the confidence wanes when Phinisee misses outside shots, which is something that happens frequently enough for it to be an issue.
Phinisee has always been a capable but not great 3-point shooter – too good to get a red light on open looks but not quite good enough to knock them down at a high clip. At McCutcheon, he never shot better than 37 percent from beyond the arc. At Indiana, his figures have predictably taken a dip with the 3-point arc further out and bigger athletes on defense between him and the bucket. He’s made 71 of 226 3-point attempts in his career (31.4 percent) and has never made more than a third of his 3s in a season. This year he’s 21 of 70 from beyond the arc, a career-worst 30 percent.
“He’s just not consistent,” Fox said. “Sometimes he’s a two-foot shooter and sometimes he’s a step-into-it shooter. I think when he steps into it, when it’s one-two shot, he has a little more arc and it has a little better chance to go in. When he’s a jump-stop, two-foot jump shooter, I think the height of his jump is inconsistent and it leads to flatter shots at times. If you notice most of his shots are on target. A lot of them are flat and he doesn’t have a high enough arc. I think that’s part of the issue.”
The misses are wearing on him more than usual. Wednesday’s game was the second time this season that Phinisee has scored in double figures without making a 3-point shot, with the last being the Nov. 30 win over Providence. In the seven games in between in which he didn’t make at least one 3-pointer, he averaged just 2.3 points per game. Indiana lost five of those seven games.
“What it comes down to for him is making shots,” Fox said. “When he makes shots, he’s more aggressive. When he can make 3s and be able to drive and do more for the team, Indiana is on that roller coaster based on how Phinisee plays sometimes. … I think everybody feels like they have more leeway when they’re playing well. What does playing well for Rob mean? It means making shots. It’s kind of a circular issue sometimes. He plays better when he makes shots and he gets more aggressive. When he’s not making shots he’s afraid to make the wrong play and it cycles the other way. I think it’s a snowball effect positively and a snowball effect negatively.”
For that reason, Miller has told him specifically not to worry about missing shots, indicating to Phinisee that he won’t be pulled for missing 3-pointers or even shots. He wants him to shoot open ones, and more importantly, he wants him to feel more confident and more free to attack off the dribble.
The dribble-drive and finishes at the rim were Phinisee’s bread-and-butter as a high schooler and he’s well built for it now. With a muscled-up 6-foot-1, 187-pound frame, he has the body to play through contact in the lane. He can finish around the rim with both hands and he has good feel for the backboard.
Considering those tools, it’s an issue that he doesn’t try to go to the rim more. Phinisee has the highest field goal percentage on two-pointers of any of the Hoosiers’ starting guards at 45.8 percent but his 72 attempts inside the arc are far fewer than the figures of senior Al Durham (96) and sophomore Armaan Franklin (108.)
According to hoop-math.com, 48.6 percent of Phinisee’s shots — 105 of his 216 field goal attempts — in his freshman year came at the rim including 48 of his 78 made field goals. Last season, that figure fell to 31.9 percent with 58 of 182 attempts and 32 of 68 makes coming at the rim.
This year, it’s down to 26.2 percent with 37 of his 142 shots coming from in close. He’s made 22 of those attempts, well over a third of the 54 field goals he has this season.
So each season, Phinisee has shown less confidence going to the rim. Miller wants to see that trend reversed immediately and Phinisee said he’s amenable to that because it gives him the opportunity to make plays for others as well as himself.
“I feel like it opens up things for my game, shooting shots, and it opens up things for the bigs too,” Phinisee said during his press conference Friday. “Even Al and Armaan on the wings hitting 3s. I think me just getting downhill in the paint really opens up things for everybody.”
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