Almost half way through the Indiana Hoosiers loss to Wake Forest last Tuesday night, it was obvious that something was familiarly off with James Blackmon Jr. The sophomore shooting guard had three turnovers and two missed three point attempts up to that point and was kind of, well, just there. His effort was limited and his body language was that of a fifth grader who's parents grounded him from his iPad. Slumped shoulders, blank expression.
It was a performance as self proclaimed Blackmon fan that I want to forget and fast -- especially after the hot start he was on during the first three games of the season averaging 18.6 points per game, shooting 55.3% from the field, 56.9% from three, making nearly four made three pointers per contest, all the while contributing three assists and five rebounds.
While I'm not trying to insinuate that this loss falls on Blackmon what so ever (as the Hoosiers gave up 52 points in the paint by allowing the Demon Deacon guards get into the lane any time they wanted), I couldn't help but want to dissect this disappearing act because let's face it, this type of play from him has reared it's ugly head before. Take both Maryland loses from last year for example, where Blackmon was a combined 1-10 from three and 3-16 from inside the arch. And if memory serves me correctly, there was a lot of standing with his hands in that catch and shoot position (just like he did in the Wake Forest loss) and a "my turn" mentality when the ball was flung his way.
Much was the same against Michigan State on January 5th, with the guard going 0-5 from three and 1-9 on his two point attempts. And that's only mentioning three of his conference clunkers from last season.
There is somewhat of a consistency brewing here... if Blackmon shot isn't falling, he tends to offer little else on the court and begins to press more when he gets the ball in his hands -- seemingly hoping to catch fire. His all around game tends to weigh too heavily on making buckets. It would be one thing if he was always hustling on defense, but we all know that Blackmon is not the best on ball defender and he often loses his responsibility from a lack of utter awareness.
There needs to be a consistent middle ground that he has to find because he's just too good of a player not to be on the floor. Something Tom Crean may be ok with if he doesn't get the direct messages he was sending his way against St. Johns (having benched the sophomore with two other starters from the night before).
But let's dig in here and take a look at exactly what happened. Almost from the opening tip of the Wake Forest game, Blackmon was half speed; often jogging around and cluttering open spacing while other Hoosier ball handlers awkwardly tried to dribble around him. If you are a fan of pace and space, or moving without the basketball, or back screens that leave the best shooters on the floor wide open, this wasn't the game to watch:
Where is the spacing here? There are three defenders on two Hoosiers and Blackmon is just standing in the corner suffocating any open lane by luring his defender into this cohort. Sure, eventually all three of those defenders get sucked in on the "drive" attempt, but not nearly enough to give Blackmon anything resembling a clean look at the basket. On top of that, why was there another Hoosier player trying to fill in on that corner again? I don't understand this?
These are the type of things that should drive any coach crazy. There is little reason for two players to be this close to one another. Instead of just standing around, cut baseline and fill in the other side or go set a screen to create some sort of relief at the top of the key.
And then we have this:
Once again, we have the sophomore jogging to an open space on the wing against the Wake Forest zone. Instead of screening and flashing in the middle, or trying to conjure up some sort of movement, he stands in that spot for almost three whole seconds. And you can see it clearly, he has every ambition to launch a three ball the minute a pass comes his way. His mind was made up the minute he filled into that location off the baseline.
Going into halftime, I was hoping Crean would light a fire under his shooting guard... then this happened:
Blackmon received a dribble handoff at the top of the key, baited around a little bit and after a couple of seconds without any half court action from his teammates, he elected to take a contested jumper -- which he missed badly. But the worst part is, Bryant has a mouse in the house pinned to his outside hip and the nearest help defender two steps away. THROW HIM THE BALL. It's an easy dunk.
Sure, Blackmon wasn't the only one to fling up an ill advised shot early in the clock during the Wake Forest loss. There was a a lot of missing offensive action, seemingly having gone away from what they were doing at Assembly Hall just a few days prior. There was just too much "me first" basketball.
But the point stands. These are awful offensive lapses, haunted with little action from any of the Hoosiers offensive players that lead into one of those "well, I might as well jack it up and hope I have the touch" attempts from Blackmon. He's better than this. He HAS to be better than this.
Now don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad. A little bit later in the half (and after a Wake Forest bunny), Troy Williams took the inbound pass quickly up court. As he looked to drive ferociously into the lane -- forcing the Demon Deacons who were back peddling lazily back on defense to lurch into the lane to prevent an easy finish -- Blackmon smartly lagged back, providing Williams with a kick back option after the four transition defenders converged into a wall. The sophomore took the pass, stepped into his shot and splash (his only made attempt of the game):
I'm not joking when I say that that three ball ignited him because moments later, this happened:
EFFORT! WE HAVE POSITIVE EFFORT!
While the dunk didn't end up counting on account of a foul, Blackmon got to the line and knocked down both free throws. The very next time down the court, he won a 50/50 ball that ultimately lead to a Troy Williams layup. That's three possessions in a row where Blackmon offensive ability, defensive effort and hustle lead to positive outcomes for Indiana. While it was about the only stretch of play that he mustered anything concrete for his team, the point remains... things happen when he's engaged on the court.
This sequence -- which resulted in a three ball that somewhat iced St. Johns on Tuesday afternoon -- is yet another example of the offense the Hoosiers should be trying to create for their sharp shooter:
Why Blackmon isn't continuously running around a bevy of screens a la Rip Hamilton is beyond me. If Indiana can't score in transition, there is little reason that Blackmon Jr. should ever be standing still throughout the remaining shot clock. If he's not running off of two or three stagger screens or getting the likes of Thomas Bryant to set a down screen for a quick "curl and shoot" opportunity around the elbow, why even have him on your roster?
Allowing Blackmon to just park himself on a wing and stare as Yogi Ferrell drives by him (or drives next to him) is doing a disservice to the rest of the team.
Perhaps thats the reason he only played 17 minutes (a season low) against St. Johns and also got benched. Perhaps there is some responsibility that needs to fall on Crean's shoulders for not getting creative enough by implementing offensive sets that gets his best shooter open in the spots he loves pulling from.
Whatever or wherever the blame falls, on the nights when Blackmon's shot isn't falling from deep, he needs to desperately find ways to stay involved. He needs to get crafty taking the ball to the hoop off ball screens in hopes of getting to the line and getting his stroke right. He needs to be a pest when digging down on opposing posting big men. He needs to remain heady in Indiana's fast break by letting his defender wander into no mans land to stop a rush, allowing him the necessary space to step into those wide open transition threes that he buries with such beautiful ease.
Because at the end of the day, with a player like him, it shouldn't be as difficult as it looked in Maui.