James Blackmon Jr. is done for the year following surgery on his right knee. It's the second surgery he's had since last offseason after going under the knife for a meniscus injury in his left knee over the summer.
Here's what the Hoosiers are losing, statistically: 15.8 PPG on 60.2% eFG (46.3% 3PT), 6.8% OR / 12.3% DR (leading all guards on the team in both categories) and an Offensive Rating of 123.8, good for 132nd nationally.
What the Hoosiers lose intangibly is, by definition, a little more difficult to describe. JBJ had seen his minutes decreased from last season (30.0 MPG in 2014-15, 24.5 this season) but was a far more efficient player in his reduced role. This is not to suggest that the minutes reduction is the sole reason for this transformation, given that freshman tend to become better players as sophomores (particularly in Bloomington) once they've had a full offseason in collegiate ball.
The guard deemed "Jimmy Buckets" demanded the attention of the defense at all times, whether he has the ball in his hands heading towards the basket with an array of silky-smooth scoring moves or he's roaming around the perimeter, hunting that deadly long-distance jumpshot. There's a reason Thomas Bryant is hitting 77% of his 2PT shots (leading the nation) and that the Hoosiers, as a whole, are hitting 58.3% of those shots (6th in the nation), and it's because of players like Blackmon. Bryant doesn't have to rise up through double-teams in order to score; it seems like half the time he has no one between him and the basket because of the opponent's tendency to over-help on the perimeter.
The good news for Indiana, however, is that they have six other players (aside from JBJ) hitting 40% or better from behind the arc. If you absolutely have to lose a player to injury, this was likely the spot you would pick. Indiana certainly can't afford to have any minutes lost in the post, but with the embarrassment of riches in the backcourt, it's an easier pill to swallow.
The impact is probably most felt stylistically. Indiana is a team that has become very comfortable and familiar starting and playing with three guards, but are now left with only three of them on scholarship and one of them (Nick Zeisloft) is very much a specialist. He is very, very good at what he does and is a key cog for Indiana moving forward, but he offers little in the ways of facilitation, ball-handling or scoring that isn't jumpshot-based. It is highly unlikely that Tom Crean plugs in his last remaining healthy guard in JBJ's absence, instead the way he's handled the past three games is likely our best indicator going forward.
Collin Hartman has started all three games in Blackmon's absence, playing 29 minutes (season high) and 26 minutes respectively in the first two games (foul trouble limited him to ten minutes against Wisconsin). This isn't surprising, and provides Indiana with a more traditional look, with five guys that fit neatly into the 1-2-3-4-5 position setup that has long-dominated basketball. While Hartman doesn't have the deadeye reputation that Jimmy Buckets has, he's certainly no slouch from the perimeter, hitting 45.1% of his 3PT attempts over the last season and a half, but on far fewer shot attempts.
With Zeisloft's role unlikely to change significantly, Hartman going from the team's top bench option to a starting role, and Max Bielfeldt likely to remain the backup post; a golden opportunity is ready to be seized by Indiana's talented freshmen. While a minutes increase is likely for guys like Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, and Robert Johnson (who, now desperately, needs to break his run of poor form), there will be plenty of minutes left over for guys who haven't seen as much court time.
Consider what our own Kyle Robbins had to say following Indiana's win over Nebraska, their second game without Blackmon:
Losing Blackmon for any period of time forces Indiana to modify this team's identity. With a lack of guard depth, Tom Crean's caffeinated brand of basketball was dialed back a bit on Saturday, forcing the Hoosiers to play deeper into the shot clock, and through Thomas Bryant in the low post. It also frees up possessions for Yogi Ferrell to do exactly what he does best -- be a ball-dominant, score-first point guard in the mold of the Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier-types that singlehandledly willed teams to championships. That's exactly the role he filled in the second half of this one -- almost beating Nebraska alone on a a string of off-the-dribble hot-shooting.
I'm hesitant to say Indiana will be better without Blackmon. It's difficult to lose 16 points per game and say "hey we got better today," but the Hoosiers can maintain their efficiency if they offset what they've lost on offense by making gains defensively. It's no secret that defense is far from James Blackmon's strength, but he's often a net-positive with the aforementioned prodigious scoring ability. If a guy like OG Anunoby or Juwan Morgan can maintain the highlight defensive plays and strong rebounding they've exhibited in limited minutes on the same rate-basis in a larger role, the team won't need to rely on their offense to be a net-positive presence.
Thomas Bryant and Yogi Ferrell's two-man game should become the team's identity, and that certainly isn't meant to marginalize the other players on the team. Indiana's best shot at sustained success likely comes from those two doing the heavy lifting and finding others as they command more and more of the defense's attention. As opponents shift their focus to keeping one eye on Yogi and the other on the post, guys like Troy Williams who are so skilled at moving without the ball will be given plenty of opportunities to dominate the game. Thomas Bryant has shown a developing ability to pass the ball back out of the post, and should he find himself doubled, finding the open man will be more important than ever.
Make no mistake, losing an experienced guard that can score like James Blackmon Jr. can will always be a loss for any team. But Indiana possesses the resources to survive a forced change of identity, assuming its talented freshmen are up to the task.