It seemed like IU would return all five of its starters following a season in which it could, or even should, have made the NCAA Tournament before (gestures outside) happened. On Friday, however, we learned that one member of that group will be leaving the program.
On Friday afternoon, IU announced that forward Justin Smith will take his final year of eligibility and use it elsewhere as a graduate transfer.
While it will certainly impact the team — Smith was IU’s best defender and posted the team’s second-most rebounds last season while also playing more minutes than any other Hoosier — it’s a loss from which IU can recover.
One of the biggest things working for next year’s expected roster is that it’s a deep one. After Smith’s departure there are 11 scholarship players left and each one of them could possibly play a role during the upcoming season. When considering how Smith’s 30-plus minutes per game could be divvied up, there are a few options that seem to make the most sense.
It feels like IU has lacked a true 3-point shooting threat since James Blackmon Jr. went pro after the 2016-17 season or, in other terms, for the entirety of the Archie Miller Era. Now, finally, the Hoosiers might’ve found a shooter.
The reigning Indiana Mr. Basketball has a clip not only as a spot-up target, but off the dribble as well. He could reasonably lead the team in a few shooting categories this season, providing some much-needed floor spacing as well.
A 6-foot-5 he’s also long enough to potentially hold his own on the wing in a lineup that also potentially features Rob Phinisee, Al Durham, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Joey Brunk.
Of IU’s four incoming freshmen, Lander might be the most exciting. The Evansville native is the lone five-star prospect to come out of Indiana this year, becoming 247 Sports’ top-ranked recruit in the state’s class of 2020 after reclassifying from 2021. If he’d stayed in high school, he likely would’ve been Mr. Basketball as a senior, but it doesn’t seem like anybody’s complaining about him making the jump to college a bit early, especially in Bloomington.
Lander drew a comparison to former Kentucky and current Sacramento Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox from 247 Sports’ Jerry Meyer, illustrating how dynamic he could potentially be. He became a 1,000-point scorer at F.J. Reitz before the state tournament began earlier this year, but he also passed the ball well and rebounded better than expected for a player of his size.
If there’s any reason to keep him out of the starting lineup, it’s that Phinisee is already established as the team’s point guard and playing the pair of 6-foot-1 guards together may not be ideal defensively in many matchups. There’s also the potential that Lander needs a bit of time to develop at IU since, after all, he’ll be a 17-year-old freshman.
Perhaps, though, he could pick up some of Smith’s minutes as an electric sixth man and lead the second unit for the Hoosiers.
Hunter was a ballyhooed recruit coming out of Ohio back in 2018, but his IU career went sideways quickly. He missed the 2018-19 season after undergoing leg surgery, but made a comeback last year. His playing time was a little inconsistent, but as the season went on, he started having games where he’d see 20-plus minutes. That makes it reasonable to assume he may be a benefactor of Smith’s departure.
His numbers don’t look terribly astounding as a redshirt freshman — he ended the year averaging 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds per game, while shooting just 35 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from downtown — but with a year of Big Ten basketball under his belt, and potentially a more consistent role on the team awaiting him, he may be a breakout candidate.
Listed a 6-foot-7, he’d slot in well on the wing with IU’s four returning starters around him and he could occasionally slide down to the four, if necessary. If he can hit from beyond the arc more consistently in his second go-round in Bloomington, he may be the key to opening up IU’s offense with a bit of floor spacing.
Any minutes that Smith was playing at the four could easily find their way to Thompson, if not Hunter. After dealing with injury for much of the 2018-19 season, Thompson proved himself to be a valuable role player as a redshirt sophomore this winter. After a lull in the middle of the year where he wasn’t able to find much playing time, he contributed over the final 10 games, averaging 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game.
As a junior he should once again be a solid big body off the bench, providing interior defense, rebounding and energy. With Smith gone, Thompson should be able to play alongside Jackson-Davis or Brunk more often which could benefit his game as well. It wouldn’t feel quite right for him to replace Smith in the starting lineup because a trio of Thompson, Brunk and Jackson-Davis all on the floor together feels like Floor Spacing Hell, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen because playing Smith, Brunk and Jackson-Davis together was Floor Spacing Hell and that happened with regularity last season.