On March 15, Trayce Jackson-Davis nearly made his decision final. He wasn’t planning to return to Indiana.
That day, not long after he learned of the ousters of head coach Archie Miller and assistant Tom Ostrom — the two men most instrumental in steering him to Bloomington two and a half years ago — Jackson-Davis wasn’t even thinking about a third season in the Big Ten. He was thinking about his exit strategy.
“I was almost dead-set on entering the draft and hiring an agent,” Jackson-Davis said Friday.
Eventually, the burning, raw emotion that blurred his thinking gave way to patience, and when IU announced Sunday that it had hired former NBA head coach Mike Woodson, Jackson-Davis was curious to learn what the new coach was all about. His parents wanted him to pursue pro basketball, but Jackson-Davis was willing to at least give Woodson an opportunity to make his pitch.
So the two sat for a one-on-one meeting earlier this week, feeling each other out, discussing Woodson’s plan and vision, and talking honestly about the things Woodson could do for Jackson-Davis and the team, at large. Woodson made a good first impression on the All-American, telling Jackson-Davis how he would train him to use his right hand, instill confidence in his jump shot and help him unlock the parts of his game that NBA scouts want to see. Jackson-Davis was sold, but his parents needed convincing.
“I said, ‘How about you come down, dad, and give him a chance and see what he has to say,’” Jackson-Davis said. “That’s what we did. We had a two-hour conversation, and then my dad said (to Woodson), ‘Give us five minutes.’ So we left Coach Woodson’s office, we went into a little meeting room and he said, ‘You’re staying.’”
And that’s how one of the best players in the country decided he wasn’t quite done with college. In announcing his decision to return to Indiana on Friday, Jackson-Davis served notice to the rest of the college basketball world. Not only is he eager to expand his game for the NBA, but he also has confidence that Woodson can help him do it.
“I hope the other guys, my other teammates, get to meet with him and they decide the same thing because I feel like he knows what he’s talking about,” Jackson-Davis said. “He knows what he’s doing and I have 100% faith in him.”
Indeed, there are four Hoosiers — Race Thompson, Armaan Franklin, Khristian Lander and Jordan Geronimo — currently in the NCAA Transfer Portal, mulling decisions on whether to return to IU and play for Woodson and a yet-to-be-finalized staff. But Jackson-Davis was the priority in-house recruit for Woodson, a go-to big who has proven over his first two years that he’s a player the Hoosiers can build around.
And yet, looking at his pro stock, there’s still much to improve. It was unlikely Jackson-Davis was going to be a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft — and some mocks didn’t have him getting picked at all. He’s been over-reliant on his left hand, and he hasn’t shown much of a shot from the mid-range and beyond. Simply put, he’s been an excellent college basketball player, who willingly played the way his former coach needed him to play. But he’s not consistently flashed a ready-made game for basketball’s highest level.
When Jackson-Davis sat with Woodson this week, the IU coach played clips of recent games where he felt the rising junior could have been more assertive with his shot, or made another move to use his non-dominant hand. The video review confirmed what Jackson-Davis has known about his limitations, and it also gave him a glimpse of Woodson’s remedy for fixing them.
“I feel like with my jump shot, I just have to have the confidence to take it,” Jackson-Davis said. “Taking one a game, and going 0-for-1 is really hard when you could go 3-for-5. That’s the way I think about it, really. Like against Illinois, I was 3-for-5 or 3-for-6 (away from the rim). It’s a lot different shooting 50% on jumpers than when you’re just taking one a game. Just being able to have the confidence to shoot the ball; I think he’s going to instill a lot of confidence in me. That’s already what he’s been telling me, being able to handle the ball and go to my right and using that as second nature to my left hand.”
Jackson-Davis on Friday also offered a glimpse at the mood in IU’s Cook Hall training facility over the past week, saying that Woodson has put a jolt into a program that often looked joyless and drained during Miller’s four-year run as head coach.
Woodson’s excitement for IU basketball, as much as any training plan, has Jackson-Davis excited for what’s to come.
“I feel like there’s a light,” Jackson-Davis said. “I feel like we’ve been in the dark for a while and there wasn’t any energy. Like, there was no energy here. All the life after the season was sucked out of us. But ever since coach Woodson got hired, I feel like it’s almost been a new positive vibe. We’ve been hoopin’, we’ve been playing some open gyms, us and the guys, and we’re really just excited to be playing basketball again, excited to be out there and being part of the team and getting work in. ... I feel like there’s a positive energy here now.”
Woodson doesn’t want to rebuild. He wants to win — and win quickly. With Jackson-Davis bought in, the Hoosiers are more likely to do so.
And when that happens, Jackson-Davis knows his IU legacy will be set.
“I want to get Indiana basketball back on track,” Jackson-Davis said. “That’s my goal. That’s why I came back, because I believe in the tradition. I believe what we have here is something special and I want to be one of the reasons why. I don’t want to be someone who ran away when it was tough. All in all, I believe in Coach Woodson and I believe in the tradition of Indiana basketball and believe we can get it back.”