If any returning player on Indiana’s roster had reason to see writing on the wall to tell him his role wasn’t going to be the same under the Mike Woodson regime, it was Rob Phinisee.
After he re-recruited Indiana’s returning players and critically got All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis to to come back for another year, Woodson looked to the transfer portal for point guards and snagged Pittsburgh transfer Xavier Johnson.
While Johnson brings with him a much higher degree of risk as a point guard than Phinisee does with 302 career turnovers to 129 in three seasons when each of them has been a primary ball-handler, he’s also much more explosive and brings a much greater possibility for reward. His 13.7 career points per game are nearly double Phinisee’s 7.1 per game, and he averages 4.9 assists per game in his career to Phinisee’s 3.1. Last season Johnson recorded 103 assists in just 18 games before deciding to transfer from Pitt and opting out of the rest of the season while Phinisee totaled 77 assists in 27 games. The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Phinisee has a reputation as a strong on-ball defender, but the 6-3, 200-pound Johnson has 124 career steals to Phinisee’s 84 in two fewer career games.
Phinisee won the starting point guard job at Indiana as a true freshman, but he had reason to believe he’d been recruited over going into his fourth year in the program. He will have a fifth year of eligibility after the 2021-22 season because of the pandemic, but there was reason to wonder if he’d try to spend that year somewhere else.
But according to Woodson, Phinisee has proven so far this summer that he doesn’t intend to go away quietly.
“I think Rob Phinisee has changed his game a little bit, too,” Woodson said in a Zoom press conference with Indiana beat reporters Friday. “I like what he’s done from the time we started to where he is today.”
The biggest difference Woodson has noticed is in mentality. Former Indiana coach Archie Miller frequently noted that Phinisee struggled with confidence issues over the last three seasons. He was so risk-averse that whenever he made mistakes, he pulled back to the point that it was often barely noticeable he was on the floor. He started three games last season in which he didn’t score a single point, playing a combined 65 minutes in those games. There were seven more games in which he scored four points or fewer.
But in practice so far at least, Woodson sees a player who has much more faith in himself.
“I think Rob has stood out a little bit in terms of where he was a year ago, in terms of being more relaxed and comfortable and playing,” Woodson said. “I’m going to need him to stay there and continue to grow, because that position is important because a lot of times the ball will be in his hands and Xavier’s hands, as well. You need them to be able to make the right decisions when the ball is in their hands.”
Phinisee sees a difference in himself as well, and he believes part of it is the offense he would be asked to run. The Hoosiers haven’t installed much in terms of plays and concepts yet, Woodson said, but they have done enough in practice to know that playing four-out, one-in means a much more open floor and much more freedom for the point guard to read and react.
So far, Phinisee loves that idea.
“Just being able to be confident, having the open floor, being able to play my game, really just show my talents like I did earlier in my career,” Phinisee said. “I feel like I have improved my jump shot. Just getting to the basket and finishing over guys, I feel like I’ve done that, too. 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.”
Phinisee is also drawing confidence from a book he’s spent the summer reading — “Intentional Mindset: Developing Mental Toughness and Killer Instinct,” by Dave Anderson. It’s a title that seems very on the nose, and addresses a characteristic in killer instinct that Phinisee seemed to lack entirely.
“That book really is a thing that helps me with my mindset every day,” Phinisee said. “I really take it day by day. Just waking up in the morning, really setting your goals out to win each day.”
Phinisee still won’t have an easy time winning the starting point guard job, because even if his mentality as sharp, he’s still trying to beat out a point guard in Johnson who is taller and seemingly more athletically explosive. He’s had to practice against him in the early going and he’s been impressed.
“Super quick with the ball, super crafty,” Phinisee said of Johnson. “He can really pass. He’s actually a really good defender, too. Him bringing his leadership and him being from Pitt, experienced, he’s really going to help our team.”
But Phinisee thinks he can still help as well. It might mean he has to step off the ball and play shooting guard, which would certainly mean he’d have to prove to be a better 3-point shooter than he was a year ago when he made just 25 of his 96 attempts from beyond the arc.
But he’s driven to do what he has to do to stay on the floor, especially because many seem to think his days are numbered.
“Obviously, last year I didn’t have the season I wanted to,” Phinisee said. “I feel like a lot of people counted me out, forgot about how good I was.”
And he plans on reminding them.
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