The Journal Gazette
Saturday, May 21, 2022 1:20 am

Return of Jackson-Davis sets him, IU up for success

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The biggest news of Indiana's offseason came down Friday when forward Trayce Jackson-Davis announced he would forego the NBA for another year and return to the Hoosiers for his senior season. 

Simply put, Jackson-Davis's return means the Hoosiers have their most complete team in at least half a decade. They return four of the five starters from the team that went 21-14 a year ago, bring in five-star recruits Jalen Hood-Schifino and Malik Reneau, add some shooting with incoming freshman CJ Gunn and can hope for big improvements from players such as Jordan Geronimo, Tamar Bates and Trey Galloway. Add in senior leadership from Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson, who will have something to prove in their final season in Cream and Crimson – Jackson-Davis technically has two years of eligibility left, but it's very unlikely he comes back for a fifth year – and expectations for coach Mike Woodson's second season will be through the roof.

Getting Jackson-Davis back a second time is the latest in a string of recruiting coups for Woodson, who publicly lobbied for his star to return in recent weeks. Indiana could have dipped into the transfer portal had the former All-American elected to enter the draft, but it was clear Woodson knew the team would not be able to fully replace everything the 6-foot-9 southpaw provided last season: post scoring, rebounding, rim protection, vocal leadership and passion for the program. 

So, how did we get here? A year ago, it seemed for all the world as though Jackson-Davis would surely be preparing for the NBA Draft by this point. Jackson-Davis's social media post announcing he would return for his junior campaign in the spring of 2021 included the exclamation "One last go around in candy stripes." 

Then Jackson-Davis turned in an all-time stretch run for the Hoosiers, averaging 26.3 points and 8.8 rebounds over the four games from the start of the Big Ten Tournament through the NCAA Tournament First Four, a stretch that put him in the record books for most points (76) and rebounds (25) in a single Big Ten Tournament by an IU player and transformed Indiana's season from the latest in a string of disappointing campaigns into what felt like the start of a new era in Bloomington.

From his comments at the time, it was clear Jackson-Davis immensely enjoyed that stretch run and helping get Indiana over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. 

"Even just what happened in the Big Ten Tournament solidified me coming back and how it was such a great decision," Jackson-Davis said before the Hoosiers faced Wyoming in the First Four. "Just the joy that that brought me and doing that with my teammates and experiencing that was just huge."

Jackson-Davis has made clear by his words and by his actions over the last several years that he cares about Indiana and the trajectory of the program. His post announcing his return for his junior season last year included the following:

"Hoosier Nation has been down for a while now and I want to be a part of the change that makes it great again."

Now, he'll have his chance. With pushes to return from Woodson and point guard Xavier Johnson, with whom Jackson-Davis developed an outstanding chemistry in pick-and-roll offense at the end of last season, plus the return of Thompson, his roommate and one of his closest friends on the team, the three-time All-Big Ten performer had every reason to come back. If Jackson-Davis stays healthy, he is now likely to finish in the top five in Indiana history in points, rebounds and blocks; if he leads the Hoosiers near the top of the Big Ten and helps them make a deep NCAA Tournament run on top of that, he would be entering legendary territory. It is not insignificant that Jackson-Davis declined to enter his name in the transfer portal during his foray into the draft process. Several other potential draft picks have done so this offseason in an effort to keep their options as open as possible, but the Greenwood native was clear: it was Indiana or the NBA. That emphasizes the extent to which his decision to come back to IU is about more than his personal development.

Still, his return to the Cream and Crimson likely wasn't assured until recently. The forward got unlucky when he tested positive for COVID-19 last week, depriving him of a chance to participate in 5-on-5 scrimmages at the NBA Combine in which he could have showcased the skills (a mid-range jump shot for one) that would have made him more attractive to NBA teams and boosted his draft stock above the late-second-round grade that had been the consensus on him since the process began. It's unclear whether the Hoosiers' star could have improved his stock at the Combine, but being denied the chance to do so was certainly a bad break for him.

On the other hand, he now has a full season to showcase the skills NBA scouts want to see from him. Woodson has been pushing him to shoot more jump shots essentially since the day the coach took over at Indiana in March 2021. Jackson-Davis recently showed up in a workout video on Twitter hitting 20-foot jumpers with a solid, confident stroke, one the Hoosiers didn't see hardly at all during his junior campaign. If he can add that piece to his game – he has been talking about doing so since the offseason between his freshman and sophomore seasons – he won't need to wonder whether he'll get drafted in 2023. Already an elite athlete with a terrific back-to-the-basket game, good vision and passing ability some ball-handling skills and excellent shot-blocking instincts, Jackson-Davis only has one true hole in his game and he can spend all of next season showing it has been patched, if he so chooses. One can imagine Johnson and Jackson-Davis running infinite variations on the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game as Thompson, Geronimo and Reneau post up down low or spot up from outside. That's Woodson's ideal offense and the Hoosiers showed flashes of how good it could be at the end of last season. Indiana is betting it can reach another level in 2022-23 and take the Hoosiers back to relevance along the way.

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