Okay, a few random thoughts to share on a Wednesday morning.
1. Parker Stewart is here … and this shouldn’t induce any Evan Fitzner PTSD
You’ve surely heard the news by now that grad transfer Parker Stewart has picked IU.
He’ll join the team in January, will have two full seasons to play, and could actually play immediately, though there is no official word on whether he’ll play this season.
It sounds to me like he wants to take the rest of this year to get acclimated to the system and get back into shape and rhythm after taking some time away from the game after his father’s passing.
Obviously, there is a lot to like about Stewart. The guy is a shooter. Read his interviews, look at his stats, and watch him play. He’s a shooter through and through. It’s in his basketball DNA. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of those.
And his shooting at a high-major level isn’t just theoretical. He’s done it.
Stewart played big minutes at Pitt in the ACC as a freshman and made 42.5% of his 3s across 113 attempts in conference play. Those are Jordan Hulls-type numbers for an underclassmen, and Stewart has the mechanics (quick release, great form and follow through) to suggest they were no one-year wonder.
His percentage dropped last season at Tennessee-Martin, but he was in a high-usage, primary-creator role, often taking lower-percentage shots off the dribble. That’s not the role he’ll play at IU. He’ll be more of a catch-and-shoot, secondary playmaker (think a more mature, consistent Devonte Green), which fits his skillset the best.
The reaction to Stewart’s announcement has been mostly positive. But I’ve noticed a few naysayers pointing to Indiana’s recent experience with Evan Fitzner as reason for caution.
My view is that Fitzner is a slightly comparable data point in that he was a grad transfer in the Archie Miller era who was known for shooting, but I really don’t see the two situations as analogous in any other way. Here’s why:
- Fitzner played in the West Coast Conference for three years prior to IU. Stewart has already shown his chops in a big conference.
- Fitzner was a big man who was only ever going to play spot minutes. Stewart can be a 65-75% of minutes type player.
- Fitzner’s shooting mechanics are fine for a big guy, but his release was slow and he couldn’t create his own shot. This was a bigger issue in a better conference against better athletes. Stewart’s mechanics are ideal, and he’s not totally reliant on being wide-open for catch-and-shoot 3s.
- Fitzner offered nothing beyond shooting, so he was either draining 3s or wasting minutes. Stewart is a coach’s son with experience as a playmaker, he can get to the free throw line, and he is a good rebounder for a guard.
Simply put: I wouldn’t waste your time worrying about how Stewart might fit because Fitzner didn’t fit. They are different situations and wildly different players.
Yes, many of us were bullish on the Fitzner addition because that roster needed a shooter. But it was a low bar for impact, and Fitzner couldn’t even reach that bar. Right now, there is a lot more reason to be optimistic about Stewart’s fit before he ever plays a minute for IU than there ever was about Fitzner’s.
2. Indiana’s lack of froncourt depth is going to be a problem
When Justin Smith transferred, I analyzed it thusly:
- It raised the ceiling for this IU team because of the positive impact it could have on Indiana’s chemistry and offensive efficiency.
- It also lowered the floor for this IU team because you lost a solid defender and an important source of experienced, athletic frontcourt depth.
If it had been my choice, I’d have chosen to have things play out as they did. The transfer was best for both parties. But it wasn’t without its risk for IU.
Basically, without Justin would be no margin for error or injury among Indiana’s returning bigs. With Trayce, Race, and Joey around to man the paint, and Jerome theoretically able to swing between the 3 and 4, you’d have a reliable rotation of tall players … but you just couldn’t lose one of them.
And here we are now, with Joey Brunk still having not played a minute and no timetable (or really expectation) for his return. Plus, Jerome’s play has been all over the place early in the season.
Fortunately, Trayce and Race have been rock solid, forming one of the best 4-5 combos in the country. But how will they hold up come Big Ten play?
This is my big fear for this team moving forward, and it’s why I’m not yet ready to buy Indiana as a top-15 defense by season’s end.
Without Justin and without Joey, Indiana is now unprotected from any injury to Trayce or Race, or even any foul trouble in an individual game. They’ve each avoided both so far, but you don’t need me to remind you about Race’s unfortunate health history as a Hoosier. (QUICK: KNOCK ON ALL THE WOOD.)
Granted, Indiana isn’t completely without options. Jerome is one. Jordan Geronimo could theoretically be another in short spurts of action. And there is always the option of going small with four guards/wings around either Race or Trayce — though Indiana needs to prove it has the outside shooting that would be needed to make such a strategy work.
Hopefully this entire paragraph becomes a moot point because Trayce and Race stay healthy, can defend without fouling, and Jerome proves capable of playing big.
But I struggle to foresee a scenario in which Indiana’s lack of frontcourt depth isn’t an issue in at least 3-5 conference games. How the Hoosiers handle those games may well be the difference between finishing 4th and finishing 10th in the conference.
I just know that I sure would be feel more comfortable if we had the security of Joey Brunk’s presence.
Now let’s end with a positive …
3. Indiana is making good use of the free throw line early in the season (seriously!)
Indiana’s poor free throw shooting has become a running joke among IU fans, at least those who appreciate gallows humor.
Archie Miller has yet to field a team that has made at least 68% of its free throws. That should be impossible at the school that once harbored Steve Alford, Jay Edwards, and Jordan Hulls, yet here we are.
But I’m at least seeing some signs of optimism early this season that the free throw line will be a legitimate friend to the Hoosiers.
First, the Hoosiers are getting to the line a ton.
Indiana’s Free Throw Rate (calculated as free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) is 47.2%. That’s an excellent number. It’s made even more impressive given the fact that it hasn’t been racked up against a bunch of scrubs. Three of Indiana’s opponents have the #3, #12, and #16 defenses in the country, and good defenses usually are good at keeping the opposition off the line.
The second reason for optimism is that the Hoosiers are actually making a higher percentage from the line.
Overall, Indiana is shooting 67.3% from the line. That’s not good, I know. It’s not even as good as last season, when Indiana shot 67.9% from the line — the high point in free throw shooting under Archie Miller!
But dig into the numbers a little bit and there is a glimmer of hope.
The Hoosiers have fared poorly from the line in two low-leverage home games against cupcake competition. Indiana went just 28-53 from the line against Tennessee Tech and North Alabama. That’s 52.8%. Yuck.
But in its other four games, all against top-70 competition in neutral or road environments, Indiana shot 79-106, which is 74.5%. That’s more like it!
What does it mean?
Well, six games is a very small sample size. Maybe time will show us that there is no signal in the noise. But so far this season we’re seeing an IU team that is doing a better job of making its free throws in games when they matter.
If that continues into Big Ten play, then the free throw line can be a huge strength for IU that helps to offset its inconsistent shooting from beyond the arc.