BLOOMINGTON --- When sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. underwent knee surgery Tuesday afternooon, a major factor in Indiana's offense was lost.
Blackmon, not expected to return this season, was Indiana's second-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game. His game created spacing on offense for the Hoosiers, whose opponents always had to account for him defenisvely.
But a new offensive threat has emerged in his absence: a quiet freshman forward named O.G. Anunoby.
"I saw O.G.'s potential in the summer," IU senior guard Yogi Ferrell said. "He was just a shy, quiet guy in the summer - he knows it - back then, but we've been on him about bringing that out. We're going to need that to win."
On Tuesday night, Anunoby continued his confident play in Indiana's 59-58 win over Wisconsin.
It got started on the defensive end when he was Indiana's first sub off the bench four minutes into the game. Immediately, went to unanimous preseason All-Big Ten player and Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes on its next offensive possesion. As Hayes posted up Anunoby, he spun around for a left-handed hook shot that was swatted out of bounds by anunoby.
Offensively, he matched his career-high of 11 points while shooting 3-for-3 from the field with a pair of free throws. In Indiana's three straight wins to start Big Ten play, he's scored 30 points across 43 minutes of playing time.
While Ferrell saw Anunoby's potential in the summer, one of Anunoby's freshman teammates, Thomas Bryant, knew of it since the two played together at last year's Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic in Louisville, Ky. Bryant said he's seen Anunoby grow a lot since then.
"Since the Kentucky Derby, I saw he was a real guy on and off the court, and I saw the potential when we came in for the summer," Bryant said. "When he was finishing with the guards instead of the bigs, that caught my eye quick."
Through the first three Big Ten games of his career, Anunoby is averaging 10 points and four rebounds per game while shooting 6-of-6 from 3-point range. He's also grabbed five steals while turning the ball over just twice, recording at least one steal in each of those three games and a block in two of those three.
"Well, he's an excellent defender, and that was for sure," Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. "His confidence his growing, you can see that with the way he's shooting the ball. As I said other times before, one of the reasons we recruited him is because of the way he could shoot. He's getting more comfortable with it, but he's very smart, he's very athletic, he's very strong for his age, and he's pretty fearless when it comes to defense."
But it's not just Anunoby's confident that's getting opponents' attention.
Throught 13 nonconference games, Indiana's bench averaged 24.4 points per game. Through its first three Big Ten games, they've averaged 26.7.
A two-point differential may not seem like much, but even in a small sample size it does show that the bench production has increased in Blackmon Jr.'s absence. That's especially true of Anunoby, whose 30 points in three Big Ten games exceed the 24 points he managed in 12 nonconference games.
Anunoby has showcased his ability to do a little bit of everything at 6-foot-8 with quiet confidence. When asked if he sees himself as a guard or a forward, he simply said, "just a basketball player."
"I told you he was shy," Ferrell said. "It's not true," Anunoby responded. "I'm not shy."
While Anunoby was reserved, Crean was forward about what the team needs to make up for Blackmon Jr.'s absence.
Crean said the team misses him and "down about that to a degree, but also resilient."
"But that the same time, you've got to keep preaching that there's unbelieveable opportunity for other people," Crean said. "16 points are not going to come from one person and they're probably not going to come from two people. They've got to come mixed up, and the best thing we can do is continue to make hustle points."