WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indiana had more than a dozen NBA scouts at practice on Wednesday, and afterward one of them made a comment about James Blackmon Jr.
Tom Crean's reaction? That's going on a poster.
The comment, in Crean’s eyes, reflected how the 6-foot-4 junior guard’s overall game is improving, and teased to what could be coming next.
“We had a very respected NBA scout say something yesterday (Wednesday) at practice — we had probably 15 teams there yesterday — one of them said, ‘James passes the ball as well as he shoots it.’
“That’s going on a poster. I’m waiting for the guy who comes in and says, ‘James is guarding people as well as he shoots it.’ That’s coming. That’s coming. Is it here today? Not yet, but he’s well on the way to that.
“But passing the ball as we as he’s shooting it, that, to me, is a sign of how well he’s understanding how much he’s got to utilize his teammates, and that’s a 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?
“When Yogi (Ferrell) made the greatest turn for our team is when he made the game easier for his teammates, and that’s when you have a team that has a chance to be special.”
Blackmon was Indiana’s second-leading scorer last year when he went down with a season-ending ACL injury, averaging 15.8 points per game. He was shooting 46.3 percent from 3-point range.
This season, Blackmon will be counted on not only for his long-distance shooting — his calling card since he set scoring records at Marion High School and a big key in Crean’s offense — but passing and improved defense.
Starting out, the biggest factor is simply being healthy at a level he can impact major-college basketball games.
Blackmon suffered a left ACL tear in high school in February of 2013, returned to be a 2104 McDonald’s All-American, needed meniscus surgery in July of 2015 and a right ACL surgery in January of 2016.
He says he is healthy, and then some. Visually, he looks like he’s in the best shape of his life.
“I actually feel 110 percent,” Blackmon said. “Getting hurt is hard, to sit out is hard. But rehab, my worth ethic, I’ve done everything to be better than I was before.”
Blackmon said he felt 100 percent about a month ago. He was doing a lot two months ago, but wasn’t fully comfortable with everyone. Now it’s a different story.
“I feel my explosion is better than it was before. Defensively, running, I feel faster. I feel better laterally and I’ve been dunking the ball better.”
Showing improvement on the defense end is a major point of emphasis. He was criticized publicly for defensive issues early in his sophomore season and never had a chance to show improvement in that area because his season ended after 13 games due to the knee injury.
“I never really paid attention to it,” Blackmon said of the criticism. “I only paid attention when coach had something to say to me about it. Every time he said something about it, I adjusted to it.”
After the season, Blackmon put his name in for the 2016 NBA draft, not because he was going to go pro, but because that is required for players to even get direct feedback from NBA teams.
“They want to see me be more of a vocal guy, floor-general type,” Blackmon said. “Those are the things I’ve been doing in practice, being a leader, letting the young guys know how we do things here at Indiana.”
During Ferrell’s final season and even afterward, the four-year Indiana starting point guard talked with Blackmon about being a leader this season.
Those words, Blackmon carries with him. He also carries with him the battles the two had in practice.
“Every day, me and him would be guarding each other, trying to go at each other, get each other’s best,” Blackmon said. “I feel I do that and guys do that on our team today. That’s probably what I take from him.”
After his ACL injury at the end of December, Blackmon had to go through a third rehab. It was arduous. It also stoked more wood in a fire he couldn’t light until he was healthy.
He says he has a chip on his shoulder entering this season.
“Just because I was out for a while of the game that I love, the thing that I love to do the most,” Blackmon said.
“This year, I want to show what I can do and also show what my teammates can do.”