Trayce Jackson-Davis is one of the lucky ones — he couldn’t make a bad decision either way.
The Indiana Hoosiers center could have embarked on a pro career — in the NBA, in the G-League or overseas — and been perfectly content to make money and improve his hoops marketability there. Or he could have decided, as he chose to do, to stay at Indiana University and live the college life all us geezers miss so desperately, play basketball, improve his pro stock and leave a legacy in Bloomington that he hopes will someday compare him favorably to Calbert Cheaney, Alan Henderson and others.
So many young athletes — young basketball players, in particular — are in a mad rush to leave the past behind and reach their goal of the NBA. Some of them have little or no financial choice, in need of a significant cash infusion that will alter the course of their family’s life. They can’t be blamed; not a bit, even if the decision can sometimes be a mistake.
Again, Jackson-Davis is lucky. He had the freedom to make this decision as the son of a former NBA player, as a son of the south Indianapolis suburbs. It’s not that he and his family couldn’t have used the money — shoot, who couldn’t use the money? — but Jackson-Davis, who decided last week to return to IU for his senior year, setting off hysterics in Bloomington and its environs, had options.
It makes sense, basketball sense and life sense.
Let’s be honest, this wasn’t like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck returning to campus for their senior year, all the while knowing they would have been the first pick in the NFL Draft. It’s not Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who returned to Lexington despite the likelihood he would have been a high draft pick.
Jackson-Davis would have been a second-round pick at best and an undrafted free agent at worst. Chances are, he would have started his career in the G-League.
“He made the right call,” an NBA executive told me. “Until he shows he can shoot from the perimeter, he’s going to be a hard sell at the NBA level. He’s got a lot to offer, but if you’re not on a guaranteed contract and you’re not in a position where you desperately need the money for your family or whatnot, it can’t hurt him returning to school.”
Jackson-Davis returned for three reasons:
• The guaranteed contract situation. He wasn’t going to get one. Anywhere. Which made it a relatively easy call.
• Two, his legacy. By returning, he has a chance to finish among IU’s all-time leaders in points, rebounds and blocks. He has a chance to be remembered the way IU’s best-ever players are remembered.
• A chance to win something significant. In Jackson-Davis’ previous three years, he was a standout talent on a bad-to-mediocre team. Even this past year, IU’s season was diving into the abyss after a late-season slump — what’s new? — and seemed headed for the NIT before a frenetic second-half comeback against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. IU would go on to shockingly beat Illinois before losing on a late-game prayer to Iowa. Still, it was enough for IU to sneak into the NCAA Tournament as one of the First Four, playing and beating Wyoming in Dayton before getting run off the floor by Santa Clara in Portland in the first round.
“I think this is the best team that I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” Jackson-Davis said Monday afternoon. “It’s the talent that we have. We have talent all across the board … We have dudes that care about the program and are here for the right things.
“The big thing that we didn’t have last year that we have this year is team chemistry. Last year, we had three guys (Parker Stewart, Miller Kopp and Xavier Johnson) come in and start for us that we didn’t know — like, we’d never played with them. We had to build our chemistry over the summer. Having a full year of experience with them and then adding the freshmen, I think it’s going to be huge for us.”
At this point, you’re wondering — as I was wondering — how NIL impacted the decision. In case you’ve been living under a rock with most of the NCAA’s decision-makers, name, image and likeness deals have changed the complexion of the college game, with NIL collectives helping finance players as they work their way through college.
And yes, Jackson-Davis will surely make a few bucks his senior year, as he very well should.
But it is not, he said, the reason he returned to IU.
“I saw the same things as you guys did, saw those things on Twitter, guys getting deals, stuff of that nature,” Jackson-Davis said. “I really didn’t think much of it. I mean, if they do want to play for those places and make that money, that’s on them. I’m thinking more big picture with my university and program.”
And his degree. He will graduate after this season. That’s no small thing.
In the end, this is a chance to win — finally. How big? That’s the question. This is still largely the team that finished in the middle of the Big Ten pack last season, still mostly the same players except for a recruiting class ranked eighth in the nation. Johnson, who needs to keep his head on straight, is the point guard. Race Thompson, the steady forward, returns for another season. Several of the younger players, guys like Jordan Geronimo (the hero of the Wyoming game), Anthony Leal, Trey Galloway and Tamar Bates all return with the hopes their games have grown.
As you might expect, Indiana fans are overjoyed and have begun stitching that sixth national-championship banner for the Assembly Hall rafters. To which I would reply:
Can they compete for a top-three spot in the Big Ten? Sure.
Can they compete for more than that? Um, again, slow your roll.
Somebody still needs to make a perimeter shot. Somebody. Anybody.
“I think the ceiling for our team is anywhere from a Big Ten championships to a national championship, if I’m going to be honest with you,” Jackson-Davis said. “I set my standards high. We had those standards last year, but obviously, it wasn’t the way our season went. I think now knowing the guys and what they do, their tendencies and what they’re capable of, I think it’s going to be huge for us. Now coach (Mike) Woodson has a year of college under his belt and that’s going to be big for him as well.”
In a sense, IU got lucky while Jackson-Davis got terribly unlucky. After working with NBA trainers out in Los Angeles, he was prepared to compete in the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago, where he would get to strut his stuff against other top players and get feedback from NBA scouts and other executives. Had he gone, and perhaps blown up — I’m old enough to remember Kirk Haston’s pre-draft-camp ascent — Jackson-Davis very well may have made a different decision.
Then, just before heading to Chicago, he got COVID-19.
It was, he said, almost like a sign — from God, from the basketball deities, somebody.
He needed to head back to school.
“It made the decision quite easy,” he said.
Again, we’re all in a rush to embark on the Next Thing. Talented basketball players dream of the NBA from the time they can first reach a 10-foot hoop. And again, the rush is often more a matter of necessity than desire; those NBA bucks can be a generational life-changer for a family.
Jackson-Davis is doing what we all yearn to do: Spend his senior year — as a 21-year-old, no less — in the heavenly cocoon that is Bloomington, Ind. Listen, I would have spent seven years matriculating down there if given the choice. Which I wasn’t. “Four years and that’s it,” my dad said.
Everybody talks about how Jackson-Davis needs to grow his game and develop the kind of perimeter shot he’ll so desperately need at the next level. Hoosier fans were going out of their mind, watching tape from the L.A. workouts where Jackson-Davis was casually knocking down jumpers from distance. Of course, he was knocking down those shots against, well, nobody. And if we’re going to be honest, we heard all this same chatter last season, when it was hoped Mike Woodson and his staff would help Jackson-Davis become a threat from the outside — which never really happened.
When he knocked down a jumper in a Big Ten Tournament game, I asked Woodson if he nearly fainted.
“I just said, ‘hallelujah,’” he said.
If you want to be excited — and far be it for me to temper your mania — consider this: Jackson-Davis desperately wants to take ownership of this program in a way he hasn’t done previously.
As he spoke with Woodson recently to share his decision to return, Jackson-Davis suggested several different ways he’d like to see practices run this next year. More emphasis on offense. More sets. Less running. A greater reliance on the high pick-and-roll between Johnson and Jackson-Davis, an approach that helped both players perform their very best down the stretch of the season and postseason.
More, though, Jackson-Davis wants accountability. One day before his press conference, I listened to a Hoosier Hysterics! podcast, during which the player said something that opened my eyes.
No more playing games with guys who test positive for drugs — presumably marijuana. No more multiple chances. You get high and test positive, you’re done.
” … Me being a senior, it’s different; it’s my last year,” he said. “This is my last time being at IU and I don’t want anything of that nature ruining our season. If you’re that selfish to do that during the season, then you don’t need to play for this university. I think it’s plain and simple.
” … It’s always giving chances and chances and chances. Being the team captain, I feel like we’ve had enough chances. We’re mature enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong … I think it’s a big thing with a lot of the team I’ve been on with the drugs affecting our team. So we’re not having that this year. We have enough to do.”
This demanded a follow-up: I asked, did drug use partially derail last season?
“Not necessarily as much last year,” Jackson-Davis said. “I think more just getting in trouble in general. Obviously, there’s things that happen behind the scenes, but I’m not really going to go into that. It definitely has had effects in the past, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
Jackson-Davis said a second thing on the podcast that opened my eyes. He said when five players missed curfew before the late-season game at Northwestern, an unnamed assistant coach reached out to him and asked him (and Race Thompson) if they wanted those erring players to compete that night.
Jackson-Davis sternly said no.
IU lost, and went into a tailspin shortly thereafter.
Truth is, that should have been a Woodson/coaching staff call and it should have been a no-brainer with no input from the players. What’s anybody doing checking in with Jackson-Davis? Truth is, those players should not have been allowed to sit on the bench up in Evanston. Further, they should have been stuck in a van and driven directly back to Bloomington, to await a punishment that would certainly involve a whole lot of running.
And yes, that includes Johnson, one of the curfew violators and someone who was arrested for reckless driving in April.
Jackson-Davis and Thompson say they will take him under their wing.
“I think X is going to have his head straight,” Jackson-Davis said. “He’s going to be with me most of the time, me and Race. That’s who he’s going to hang out with. We’re going to make the right decisions. He’s going to make the right decisions. There’s not going to be any of that, no funny business going on. Coach Woodson and him have already had those discussions. So he’s ready to get started.”
But I digress.
This is about Jackson-Davis and the freedom to make the kind of decision he wanted to make. He will get better and IU will be better — how much better, nobody yet knows. But the Hoosiers have a chance to be relevant again and, dare we say it, really good.
(Top photo: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)