When Indiana sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. injured his right knee in practice this past Monday, a major part of Indiana's offense went missing.
Not only did Indiana lose its second-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game with no timetable specified yet for his return, they lost a player who also created opportunities within the Hoosier offense with opposing defenses having to account for him.
However, in a way, his loss still created opportunities for others by opening the door for more minutes for players like freshman forward O.G. Anunoby, who has gone from the end of the bench to a key rotation player. While fellow freshman Thomas Bryant has been a regular at center, Anunoby's other freshman teammate, forward Juwan Morgan, has been playing valuable minutes off the bench for the Hoosiers as well.
"We're getting real contributions from freshmen, which is important," Indiana head coach Tom Crean said after Indiana's 79-69 win Saturday at Nebraska. "Well, it's important anyways, but it's really important when you take out a guy as good as James is with the 16 point a game average, and the fact that he creates so many opportunities for other people."
Blackmon has missed the last two games with the knee injury, which Crean said after Saturday's game was still being evaluated.
In those two games, Anunoby has seen the most increase in minutes. The Jefferson City, Mo. native has averaged 13 minutes per game after playing 8.3 minutes per game through Indiana's 13 nonconference games.
Saturday was his most efficient game as he finished with a career-high 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field in 11 minutes off the bench. He had eight points and six rebounds in 15 minutes against Rutgers.
In his last two games, he's accumulated 19 points, 10 rebounds, zero turnovers, four steals and three 3-pointers after finishing 24 points, 21 rebounds, four steals and one 3-pointer total in 13 non-conference games.
As well as he has shot the ball, though, his confidence might also be coming from playing turnover-free basketball.
Anunoby often played timid in nonconference play, and it showed: even with limited opportunities - aside from blowout wins over Eastern Illinois and Alcorn State which earned him 15 and 17 minutes, respectively - he managed to turn the ball over 10 times. However, he hasn't committed a turnover since the IPFW game Dec. 9, which mean's played four straight games without turning the ball over during a stretch where he's playing more minutes than usual.
"I just try to come out with energy, play through the gameplan and execute it," Anunoby said.
As a senior at Jefferson City (Mo.) High School, he averaged 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Numbers like that are put up by players who start often in their high school careers.
It was an adaptation for Anunoby to go from that to his current role off the bench as a freshman, but he took it in stride.
"It was tough at first, but I've adjusted," Anunoby said.
Another freshman who has also adjusted is Morgan. The Waynesville, Mo. native was limited by injury and missed four of Indiana's 13 nonconference games. He returned from injury and logged six minutes against McNeese State, but did not play against Notre Dame.
In those eight games he did manage to play in, he averaged 7.1 minutes per game. Though he's averaged fewer minutes, playing six in each of Indiana's Big Ten road wins to start the season, he has brought effort defensively with two steals, five rebounds and one block over those two games.
As well as Anunoby and Morgan are playing on both ends, they will likely experience ups and downs like all freshmen. Bryant experienced that first hand when he fouled out of in his Big Ten debut with three points and one rebound in six minutes at Rutgers, only to respond with 19 points (one shy of tying his career-high), four rebounds and three blocks in IU's win at Nebraska Saturday.
"It was a hard game at Rutgers," Bryant said, "but I knew that if I stayed with it, I'd bounce back."
That menality will be important for Anunoby when Blackmon returns and Crean has to adjust players' minutes. But with Blackmon's status still unclear, Anunoby will likely continue to get the minutes he's received over the last two games.
Development-wise, that's a good thing. Former IU guard Victor Oladipo saw an uptick in his minutes as a freshman when Big Ten play began, and he averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game through his first two Big Ten games.
Oladipo played 27 and 25 minutes in each of those games, respectively, while Anunoby got 15 and 11 in each of his. Anunoby averaged 9.5 points and five rebounds, so he's posting numbers that are fairly close to Oladipo's average while getting half the amount of average playing time Oladipo did.
Oladipo's numbers dropped off after his fourth Big Ten game of his freshman year, so it will be interesting to see if Anunoby (or Bryant or Morgan) follows a similar path. But for now, he appears to be making anticipated improvement.
"I think it proves true that a lot of times, there's a lot of improvement from Game 1 to Game 2," Crean said. "I mean, O.G. did that. He had a really good game against Rutgers, and came in today and was even better than that. That's what you want. You want guys to understand that they can get better, they've got to impact the game even when it's not going right for them."