Mike Woodson spent a lot of his introductory press conference Monday talking about history and bridging gaps between “old-timers” who know who he is and younger fans and players who don’t.
He thanked Bob Knight before anyone else, “because Indiana Basketball will always be Bob Knight. Will always be.” He thanked Quinn Buckner and Scott May, superstars from the 1975-76 undefeated national champions who apparently backed his hiring as Indiana’s new basketball coach, and when he was introduced he took a photo with the No. 42 jersey he wore when he starred at Indiana from 1976-80.
But when he was asked about what he wanted his style of play to be at Indiana and how he would recruit, coach and relate to modern college players, his answers implied that he clearly understood that Indiana can’t operate as it did in its glory days and expect similar results. When answering those questions, he never invoked Knight’s name, nor did he invoke any references to the past.
Woodson instead pointed out that all his time playing in coaching in the NBA gives him a sense of where the game is going, because innovation often starts at the professional level and trickles down to the college game.
Woodson has seen the NBA game evolve drastically since he was drafted in 1980 and even since he got his first full-time assistant coaching job in the league in 1996 with the Milwaukee Bucks. He won an NBA championship with a defensive-oriented Detroit Pistons team in 2004 that locked down Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers but has seen the game become much more wide open in the time since, which for him included head coaching stints with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. He was an assistant with the Knicks until formally accepting the job as Indiana’s head coach on Sunday.
“When I look at college basketball,” Woodson said, “a lot of it is they are taking things from our league.”
On defense, Woodson said, that means being versatile from a schematic standpoint and a personnel standpoint. It means being able to play man-to-man but make adjustments within that man-to-man, but also to be able to put together junk defenses and presses when necessary.
“I think I can bring a system in that from a defensive standpoint where you know we can recruit players that are capable of playing three or four positions,” Woodson said. “That’s kind of how I did it in the pros. Players that if you did switch defensively, you felt good about them. The players guarding the ball and players that are committed to rebounding the basketball. I think when you build a defensive system, if everybody is connected together and work hard to defend not only the ball but when there is a breakdown, and rebound the basketball as a unit, you put yourselves in position to win basketball games.”
On offense, the NBA is increasingly driven by data that suggests the two most efficient shots are layups and 3-pointers. That has led to a game that is more open and spaced out and lineups that are increasingly made up of players with 3-point shooting range.
Woodson, who had a reputation as an excellent shooter at Indiana before the advent of the 3-point shot in the college game, never really embraced the 3 as a player. Listed as a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, he made a total of 120 3-pointers in 786 career games, hitting on just 27.1 percent of his attempts. However, the value of the 3 has become much more apparent to him in his time as a coach.
In his press conference, Woodson mentioned his 2012-13 New York Knicks team, which won the Atlantic Division and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to the Indiana Pacers. With a crew of outside shooters that included Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, the Knicks led the NBA in 3-pointers made (10.9 per game) and attempted (28.9 per game) and finished fifth in 3-point percentage (37.6 percent).
With those figures, the Knicks would rank 24th in made 3-pointers per game and 29th in attempts because the game has become that much more wide open. The Jazz currently lead the NBA with 17.0 makes per game and 42.8 attempts per game, and they have the best record in the league.
“The style has changed, like I said, and it’s a beautiful style,” Woodson said. “I don’t think you can always just live on shooting threes, but it’s great if you’ve got a team that can make it.”
And Indiana, Woodson said, has to become a team that can make 3-pointers. Though the state of Indiana prides itself on its ability to produce outside shooters, the Hoosiers have been one of the worst shooting teams in the Big Ten over the past four years during coach Archie Miller’s tenure. The Hoosiers never shot better than 32.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc during Miller’s tenure and never finished better than 204th nationally in those four seasons. This year’s Hoosiers finished last in the Big Ten in made 3-pointers with 158, 5.9 per game. They were also last in attempts with 488.
“The three-ball has changed the game,” Woodson said, “and we have to find players that can make the three-ball.”
Finding players, of course, is something that Woodson has never had to do before, at least not like he’ll have to do it at the college level. Coaches at the NBA level play a part in talent acquisition through the draft and through free agency, but the process is obviously different and the money those players are paid is obviously a significant factor.
Still, Woodson believes he’s learned enough from those experiences to be effective.
“We recruit all the time in the NBA,” Woodson said. “The one year I coached the Atlanta Hawks when I was given that job, I had the youngest team in the history of the game and they were all recruits from the college game where you had to go out and do background checks, medical checks, all kind of things in terms of bringing a player in that you think that can help build your program. So we’re not new to recruiting, free agency. You’ve got to go out and recruit. But we’re recruiting younger people now and I get that.”
Woodson believes he’ll be able to sell those players on the fact that he was once in their shoes, he went from there to where they want to go, and he knows how to get them there now. Woodson grew up in Indianapolis to a working class family with 11 siblings. His father died of a heart attack when he was 13. But Woodson managed to go from Broad Ripple High School to Indiana to the NBA where he spent 11 seasons and scored almost 11,000 points.
“I’ve been far removed from it, but I honestly believe I can go in a kid’s home and be able to relate because of what I’ve gone through in my career,” Woodson said. “And I have a story to tell, I do. If that kid is willing to listen and he buys into my story, I think I can get him to come to Indiana University.”
Before he convinces anyone to come to Indiana, he has to convince the current roster to stay. Six players from Indiana’s 2020-21 roster currently have their names in the transfer portal — senior guard Aljami Durham, redshirt junior forward Race Thompson, transfer guard Parker Stewart, sophomore guard Armaan Franklin, freshman guard Khristian Lander and freshman forward Jordan Geronimo.
Durham, who has his degree after four years and would ordinarily be out of eligibility if not for the COVID-19 exemption on this season, has indicated he will not return and that he could simply begin his professional career. The rest have indicated that the new coach has an opportunity to keep them. Woodson said he would meet with them individually throughout the day Monday.
“My first job is to sit down with each one of them and talk about staying in Hoosier Nation,” Woodson said. “You know, that’s what’s important. And if I got to plead and beg a little bit to keep them here, I’m going to do that. But again they have got to make the final decision on what they want to do, but there’s no better place in the country to play basketball I think.”
Woodson should have at least a fighting chance to keep most of them based on what IU athletic director Scott Dolson said the players told him they wanted out of a new hire.
“Our players talked about three things,” Dolson said. “They talked about relationship was really important to them. They talked about skill development and how that skill development can translate to the style of play we play, but also translate to playing at the next level. The third thing they talked about was just a style of play overall and again in my meetings with Mike and talking to him, and then talking to several people as I said I highly respected across the NBA and college basketball, Mike it just really felt like it was a great fit for sure.”
Even if it is at a different level where Woodson will have to inform most of his recruits who he is.
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