Trayce Jackson-Davis’ freshman season came to an abrupt end due to the onset of the pandemic.
His sophomore season was played without fans, and ended in the firing of his head coach.
Year three was played under a new head coach, in a new system, with a wave of new teammates.
Finally, everything looks just right for Indiana to have a strong season consistent with the blue blood expectations of the fan base, and Jackson-Davis seems hell bent on making sure no one derails it.
Let’s be clear — Jackson-Davis would have preferred to have excelled at the NBA Draft Combine, worked his way up the charts, and moved on to his professional career. This will be a fourth year of college he never thought he’d be playing. But multiple unfortunately timed positive COVID-19 tests and related stamina challenges were taken as signs by the star big man that the NBA wasn’t meant to be just yet, and he made the call to come back for his senior year at IU.
What is waiting for him in Bloomington has made the thought of a fourth season much more palatable.
“I think this is the best team that I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” Jackson-Davis said on Monday. “It’s not even the sense that — it’s the talent that we have. We have talent all across the board from the guards all the way down to the centers.
“We have dudes that care about the program, are here for the right things.”
As it turned out, there was a lot to unpack in that last sentence.
Jackson-Davis isn’t naming names, but he has offered in the last couple days that he wants the IU staff to become more strict when it comes to consequences for failed drug tests.
What exactly is going on here?
“I think it’s a big thing with a lot of the teams I’ve been on with the drugs affecting our team,” Jackson-Davis said, adding that it wasn’t much of a problem last year despite some players being suspended during the season.
The 6-foot-9 All-Big Ten performer has seen far too often how a season can turn sideways in a hurry, and he doesn’t want his last rodeo in candy stripes to meet the same fate.
“Just me being a senior, it’s different. It’s my last year,” he said. “This is my last time being at IU, and I don’t want anything of that nature ruining our season. If you’re that selfish to do that during the season, then you don’t need to play for this university. I think it’s plain and simple.
“They’ve (IU) kind of been sticklers about it, but it’s always giving chances and chances and chances (with the drug tests). Being the team captain, I feel like we’ve had enough chances. We’re mature enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s a big thing for us. So we’re not having that this year. We have enough to do.”
Mentioning Xavier Johnson right here might be taken as a suggestion he is somehow involved with the drug issues Jackson-Davis mentioned, but there is no evidence out there to suggest that is the case.
But Johnson has had his own share of issues, from being one of the five players suspended for breaking curfew prior to the game at Northwestern, to an egregious traffic violation in March.
More than anyone else on the team, Jackson-Davis knows Johnson is the straw that stirs the IU drink.
In his first season with IU after transferring from Pitt, Johnson finished second on the team in scoring with 12.1 points per game and led the team with 5.1 assists. He scored in double figures in his last 10 games of the season, averaging 16.6 points per game in that stretch. The Johnson-Jackson-Davis duo became lethal in the pick-and-roll, and the pair willed IU to two Big Ten Tournament wins and an NCAA Tournament win.
Jackson-Davis has also taken it upon himself to make sure Johnson stays on the straight and narrow path.
“I think X is going to have his head straight,” Jackson-Davis said. “He’s going to be with me most of the time, me and Race. That’s who he’s going to hang out with, who he’s going to be with. We’re going to make the right decisions. He’s going to make the right decisions for us. There’s not going to be any of that, no funny business going on.”
And in case there were any lingering thoughts that traffic incident might have been the end of Johnson’s time at IU, it seems fairly clear that isn’t the case.
“Coach Woodson and him have already had those discussions,” Jackson-Davis said. “So he’s ready to get started, ready to get to work for next year.”
Jackson-Davis certainly seems like a man on a mission. It’s a dual-purpose one, no doubt. He wants to make it to the NBA after this season of course, and he thinks he can make a case that he fits in the league while helping IU have a strong run.
“The biggest thing for me is adding just a few jump shots here and there to my game,” Jackson-Davis said of the discussions he’s had with Woodson on showcasing his talents without adversely impacting the team.
“He said I have to shoot four or five jump shots a game, and I’m still going to get 10 to 12 shots under the rim. Just adding and incorporating to it, especially in practice to start.”
Going into each of his three return seasons, Jackson-Davis has confidently said he can and will shoot more. To this point it hasn’t happened, so pack that one away in the “remains to be seen” file.
What we haven’t heard from Jackson-Davis or anyone else inside or outside of the program over the last three years, is any kind of genuine conviction that IU had a Big Ten championship caliber roster on its hands.
His return last week marked a strong pivot in the thinking about what the 2022-23 edition of IU basketball is capable of.
“I think the ceiling for our team is anywhere from Big Ten Championship to National Championship, if I’m going to be honest with you,” Jackson-Davis said.
Of course when it comes to delivering on those expectations, that all remains to be seen too.
But Jackson-Davis isn’t about to let any of his teammates stand in the way.
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