Every year, Indiana basketball players take a grueling physical fitness exam, known as the VO2 test, during which they sprint on a treadmill for as long as they possibly can.
For James Blackmon Jr., his results this year show just how far he has come in his recovery from January’s knee surgery
“James got the third-highest score ever,” said Indiana Coach Tom Crean of the conditioning test while speaking to reporters last Thursday at Big Ten Media Day at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington. “He’s gone up three minutes in that test in two years’ time. That isn’t easy.”
Blackmon Jr., a junior, was Indiana’s second-leading scorer last season before he sustained a non-contact injury to his right knee in practice on Dec. 30, 2015. The injury kept him out the rest of the year and placed a chip on his shoulder entering this season.
“I feel like I was out for a while from the game that I love and the thing I love to do the most,” he said at Media Day. “So this year I just want to show what I can do and what my teammates can do.”
The Marion, Indiana native says he’s been completely healthy for about a month and is ready to start the season without any limitations.
“I feel, actually, 110 percent,” he said. “Getting hurt is hard but my rehab, my work ethic, I feel I’ve done everything to be better than I was before. I feel comfortable with everything.”
That comfort level made an impression on Crean, who was pleased with how Blackmon Jr. performed when he returned to practice.
“I was the proudest that he just came back and when he got into practice, he wasn’t timid, he was aggressive,” said Crean, who is entering his ninth season at IU. “He wasn’t reactionary, he was proactive in what he did and he just got after it.”
Blackmon Jr. even hinted that he might be even more advanced physically than he was before the surgery.
“I feel like my explosion is better than it was before,” he said, when responding to a question about whether his explosion was back to its previous level. “Defensively, running, I feel faster, I feel better going laterally and I’ve been dunking the ball a lot better.”
Crean backed up his player’s sentiment, telling the assembled media that Blackmon Jr.’s vertical had improved “six or seven inches” since the surgery.
Blackmon Jr. tested the NBA waters in the offseason but decided to return to the Hoosiers after getting feedback from some NBA executives. He says he’s taken that feedback to heart and it could lead to more than just physical changes in his game.
“They just wanted to see me be more of a vocal guy, a floor general type,” he said. “And those are things I’ve been doing in practice, by being a leader, letting the young guys know how we do things here at Indiana and I feel like we’ve all done a good job.”
That leadership will be key in replacing departed point guard Yogi Ferrell and he says it will help him improve on defense, an area of his game he has struggled with in the past.
“Just communication and being more vocal,” said Blackmon Jr. when asked how he’s gotten better on that end of the court. “Our team is talking so much in practice, which helps everyone be in the right spot. It’s all about positioning and spots for me.”
If Indiana hopes to make deep run in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, it will need Blackmon Jr. to be a star. Early on, all indications are that he’s ready to do just that.