He was 18, more than two thousand miles from home, and the only freshman on the team.
Kel’el Ware’s freshman season at Oregon was by no means a disaster, but it’s no secret things didn’t go as planned considering his 5-star recruit, McDonald’s All-American credentials.
The 7-foot Ware arrived at Eugene a year ago as an almost certain one-and-done.
And now the Little Rock, Ark. product is one-and-Bloomington, a place no one thought he’d be at this time a year ago.
What’s also no secret about Ware’s freshman campaign? Right or wrong, there was chatter about his motor.
Ware says he was watching from afar as Trayce Jackson-Davis developed into a consensus first team All-American under head coach Mike Woodson at Indiana. One of the techniques Woodson used to help Jackson-Davis improve was, at least when necessary, a blunt, direct, matter-of-fact approach.
Woodson once told Jackson-Davis he was scared of Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn.
“I put the stats right in his face from his matchups with Kofi, and I said ‘you’re scared of Kofi,’” Woodson recalled last year of his discussions with TJD before a March, 2022 Big Ten Tournament matchup. “He said ‘no, I’m not coach,’ and I said, ‘well, the stats don’t indicate that.’”
Jackson-Davis responded to Woodson in a major way. He scored 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting and added seven rebounds and three assists as IU won 65-63 and secured its spot in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Woodson was aware of the things that were being said about Ware when he came to Indiana for an official visit in April.
And once again, Woodson went with a no nonsense approach.
“When I recruited that young man I told him, you cannot go back and get what happened the year before,” Woodson said on Wednesday. “You can’t.
“The word is out; they knocked you and said, ‘hey, you’re lazy, you don’t work hard,’ and if you make a commitment to me, that’s got to change.”
Recruiting is often perceived as the nonstop showering of praise on a prospect. But that’s not what Woodson was offering Ware, and that’s not Ware was looking for when he entered the transfer portal in the spring.
Ware says he knows what people were saying about him, and that’s what fueling him going into his sophomore season.
“I just want to prove to everybody that they’re wrong,” Ware said on Wednesday. “Just to show everybody that I have a motor, that I can keep going on the court. People say that I’m lazy, and I can show them that I’m not lazy.”
Woodson didn’t tell Ware how great he was, but rather how great he could become. The direct message was exactly what Ware was seeking.
“He’s going to push me to play harder, that’s what he said,” Ware said. “He’s going to push me to play hard and to my best ability, and become a better athlete.”
How good can he be? Ware has the potential to be every bit of the rim protector Jackson-Davis was. Several of Ware’s teammates admitted on Wednesday they’ve had encounters at the rim with the 7-footer that didn’t end well. On the other end, Ware isn’t as skilled as Jackson-Davis, but he bring a pick-and-pop option the Hoosiers haven’t had in a while.
It seems clear this will be a defining year for Ware. Can Woodson help him achieve his immense potential?
Woodson does not approach coaching the same way Bob Knight coached him when he was a player at IU. He’s said today’s players couldn’t handle that kind of approach.
But Woodson is also not a pure player’s coach. He seems to have landed on a balanced style that worked for Jackson-Davis, and also helped him land in Ware the program’s first 7-footer since Cody Zeller. With Woodson pushing him, Ware hopes to follow Zeller’s path as a two-and-done to the NBA.
“I’m not always the easiest coach to play for, but I’m in your corner and I’m fair and I want what’s best for you and my ballclub,” Woodson said.
“He made the commitment to me, and I’m going to push him to play at a higher level to help us win basketball games.”
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