James Blackmon Jr. is ready to make up for lost time.
The junior guard, who finished top-10 in the conference in scoring as a freshman, suffered a right knee injury during a non-contact drill in practice two days before conference play last season.
Blackmon was shut down for the remainder of the season and underwent successful knee surgery as he watched his teammates win a Big Ten regular season title and make a Sweet Sixteen run.
“It was hard to sit out, but I still had to be there every day for my teammates,” Blackmon said. “Just by watching the game, I was seeing spots where I can do good things and also just being more vocal. I’ve carried that over.”
The Marion, Indiana, native worked tirelessly during his rehabilitation to become an even better player than he was before.
In addition to the help IU provided, he was aided by both of his younger brothers. Vijay Blackmon, a senior in high school, had the same injury as James in the past, and his youngest brother, eighth grader Jalen, would play him in one-on-one at home every day during the summer.
“My brother had the same injury I had, so I would just ask him if everything was normal and I would just talk to him every day,” James Blackmon Jr. said. “And my younger brother is a guy who works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, so there’s things I took from my younger brother that’s helped me with my game.”
Although Blackmon missed all of Big Ten play in his sophomore season, he decided to enter his name into the NBA draft and participate in the combine in middle May. Due to the new rules, the IU guard was allowed to withdraw his name from the draft within 10 days after the NBA combine in order to maintain his college eligibility.
IU Coach Tom Crean said the draft process was good for Blackmon and he went in with his eyes wide open and with full knowledge of where he was at from an injury standpoint. Crean said he felt his junior guard learned a lot in the process and has matured a great deal throughout his tough recovery.
“He’s gotten his body better, and his vertical has gone up about six or seven inches since his surgery,” Crean said. “I was the proudest that when he came back and got into practice that he wasn’t timid. He was aggressive. He wasn’t reactionary, he was proactive in what he did and just got after it.”
While he was averaging nearly 16 points per game for the second consecutive season before going down with the injury, there was still outside criticism about Blackmon’s efforts on the defensive end of the floor.
Crean said Blackmon heard the negative comments coming from outside the IU program, and he feels like it put a little chip on his junior guard’s shoulder.
The Hoosiers had about 15 NBA scouts at practice last week. Crean said a highly respected scout came up to the 17-year-head coach and said Blackmon passes the ball as well as he shoots it.
As much as Crean enjoyed the compliment from the scout, he added that he couldn’t wait for the day someone comes along and says Blackmon guards people as well as he shoots.
Although Crean said that second statement doesn’t hold true just yet, Blackmon’s defense is improving and his head coach believes that the positive remarks are on their way.
“Passing the ball as he shoots it, that to me is a way of understanding how much he’s got to utilize his teammates,” Crean said. “And that’s the key for any player. Great, middle of the road, bringing up the bottom of the bench, do they make the game easier for their teammates? And that’s what we have to work toward.”
IU has emphasized heavy ball pressure on defense against opposing guards throughout this offseason. Blackmon said he and his teammates pressure one another up and down the court every day in practice and he thinks it makes the team better not only defensively but on offense as well.
He also stressed that being active and communicating will be a major contributor in the amount of deflections and turnovers the Hoosiers create per game this year.
“I don’t think I’ve shown everything that I can do, so I do have a chip,” Blackmon said. “I feel like our whole team has been through a lot, so we all want to show what we can do.”