It’s rare that a single player can cause so much variance in preseason projections for an entire team, but that seems to be the case with Kel’el Ware and Indiana’s 2023-24 season.
Judging by the national projections, including the Big Ten media poll, most aren’t expecting a huge leap from Ware after a somewhat underwhelming freshman season at Oregon. Should he reach his potential as a five-star, top ten recruit though, Indiana could find itself in contention for a Big Ten title again.
Back in April, I wrote a pretty in-depth preview in the kind of player that Kel’el Ware can be. He’s a big that can handle the ball and shoots it well from distance for his size. The prototype of a modern NBA big and the kind of player Indiana has never had before.
Mike Woodson has already started his campaign to get Ware to reach his potential, noting to the media that he was labelled as lazy at Oregon, urging him to prove that sentiment wrong. If Ware responds the way Woodson wants him to, Indiana could be in for a special season.
Since we’ve already covered his skillset here, let’s take a look at how those skills may fit alongside his new teammates in the starting lineup.
On the court
Ware is the ideal modern big on paper. He’s able to get his buckets in the post while having the agility to move around and ability to score from distance.
He’ll be in the NBA one way or another, he has an extremely coveted skillset that coaches everywhere have been eager to unlock. We’ll get to see if Mike Woodson is the guy who ends up doing that.
Ware is the tallest player on the team, so expect him to be slotted into the five despite his hybrid skillset. Outside of the opening tip though, things will probably start to look less traditional.
My best guess is that the starting front court will be Ware alongside Malik Reneau at the 4 and Mackenzie Mgbako at the 3. Ware is capable of posting up and finishing lobs off of pick and rolls like Trayce Jackson-Davis was at the five spot last year, but otherwise, Reneau is the most classic post player of the bunch and will probably spend the most time in the paint.
Compared to the first two years of Woodson’s tenure, adding a guy like Ware gives Indiana a lot more options. As a true 3-point threat, teams will need to guard him when he’s positioned on the perimeter, leaving the paint more open for Malik Reneau to work one on one when he has a favorable matchup.
Pulling Ware out to the perimeter should also open some space on the middle of the floor for drives from Xavier Johnson, Trey Galloway or one of Indiana’s wings. No longer will our two guards have to drive into three defenders already waiting in the paint.
This is one of the reasons that I’m so excited about the upcoming Indiana basketball season: Ware does not have to be playing his best to completely change the complexion of the offense. Simply being able to knock down 3s at 6’11” will make it difficult for opponents to pack the paint as they’ve so successfully done against Indiana since about 2017.
So long as he hits his shots when he’s open and takes advantage of the less athletic bigs he’ll be matched up with in the conference, the offense will take a step forward.
As my earlier preview notes, Ware posted numbers that compare favorably to TJD (despite the limited minutes) in block and rebounding rates. If he can produce like that in more playing time this year, Indiana should improve on the defensive end as well.
This is another area where playing alongside Malik Reneau should favor both players. Ware will probably not be expected to battle down low with the heftier bigs in the conference, while Reneau will not need to extend to the perimeter much against the more versatile forwards the Hoosiers will see.
Individual matchups aside, Ware’s length and blocking ability make him the ideal rim protector to fill in for TJD, who provided an important safety valve for Indiana’s defense last year.
He may not record as many highlight blocks, but we’ve seen how well the defense can work when guys can play more aggressively knowing that there’s somebody back there to challenge guys who get to the interior.
He may take some time to adapt on both sides of the ball, but Ware is a guy who will help Indiana even before he fully realizes his NBA potential. And Mike Woodson is a coach who should be able to get the most from him.