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Can Justin Smith take the next step for Indiana Basketball?

Indiana forward Justin Smith goes up for a layup against Maryland on January 22, 2018. (Josh Eastern/HN)

Indiana Basketball is going to be headlined by two names going into this season: Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford. Both fantastic players who should be the main options on offense and are the team’s one-two punch in terms of overall talent.

As great as those two are, one name is flying slightly under the radar for the Hoosiers. Sophomore forward, Justin Smith.

Smith has a real chance to be the third option on offense and to turn into a totally different type of weapon than he was a year ago.

“He’s very talented obviously, athletically he’s more gifted, he’s a better player right now,” Miller said. “He has a chance to really be a different type of impact on us.”

For a player who only averaged 6.5 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, and 14.9 minutes per contest as a freshman, Smith garners high expectations. Despite the modest statline, Miller and the fanbase are very high on what the versatile forward can do this season.

Raw Talent and Versatility

 The first thing that jumps out about Smith is how raw of a player he is. His natural talent and athleticism is what got him on the court early last season and those abilities being expanded upon is the key for his development moving forward.

Standing at 6-foot-7 and 227 pounds, his build allows him a plethora of opportunities on the court. Defensively, Smith’s versatility allows the Hoosiers to have plenty of options in organizing the lineup as he can guard multiple positions.

Oftentimes last year he would play as a small ball four. If the Hoosiers want to go faster and stretch the floor more, this is something that could be seen more this season too.

At the same time, Smith could spend a significant amount of time at the wing, working the perimeter, and potentially scoring more too, especially if his jumper improves.

Last season, he shot an impressive 55 percent from the field but only had a 30 percent mark from the three-point line. Miller believes that honing in his athleticism in translation to skill provides a great chance for Smith’s scoring figures to increase.

“We’ve also really focused in on his skill level, becoming more perimeter oriented,” Miller said.

“He has a chance to put more points on the board for us, and for him in general, I think that’s the difference between averaging six or seven and maybe 11 or 12, maybe 13 on a deep team.”

The Athleticism

To add to his raw skill and talent, Smith’s athleticism is jaw-dropping. Nothing better emphasizes how gifted he is athletically than his vertical leap.

He can dunk the ball ferociously and rise above his opposition to grab boards with ease. This signature skill of his is only getting better too.

In the offseason when working with the team’s Director of Athletic Performance, Clif Marshall, Smith made giant improvement in his vertical.

In July, he broke the Indiana basketball program vertical record measuring at 48 inches. Victor Oladipo held the previous record of 43 inches.

“When it happened I really had no idea that I could do that,” Smith said. “It was pretty cool, it’s a lot of work in the weightroom and working on that kind of stuff.”

That work certainly paid off, as a freshman Smith’s vertical measured at 42 and a half inches. His most recent measurement though ties the NBA Draft Combine record.

Improvement and Consistency

Smith always seemed to be a step or play away from breaking out a year ago. The sophomore certainly showed certain flashes or glimpses throughout the season of how special he could be. His playing time was limited early as he learned and adjusted to Miller’s pack-line defense. Once he learned that, he slowly started to provide more and more for the team.

Now, simply being a year older could pay dividends for him and the team.

“Just having a year under your belt you get more comfortable and you gain more confidence,” Smith said. “You start to know things and know where things are and that translates.”

Smith always seemed to be a step or play away from breaking out in games year ago. He showed  plenty of flashes of his potential throughout the season of what a more refined player he could look like. In addition to the renewed confidence and growing comfort of the college game for Smith, improved consistency could come from more effort too.

“I feel like last year I would go through stretches where I wouldn’t play as hard which would translate to me not playing well,” Smith said. “Being able to play hard the entire time, all game, every game is really going to make a difference for me.”

Overall, Smith has a chance to have a very special season for the Hoosiers. If his raw talent and supreme athleticism continue to develop along with a more consistent effort could amount to a far better Indiana team.

The success and ceiling of this team is dependent on how Smith performs. If he plays like Miller and many others think he can, both the team and Smith could reach new heights.

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