Trayce Jackson-Davis’ right hand was on his hip as he stood on the sideline Saturday, his body swaying in place as Ohio State continued with a 19-0 run.
Jackson-Davis needed time to clear his head. Just moments earlier, Indiana’s star forward had taken his first shot of the game — more than five minutes in — spinning in the post and throwing up a left-hander. It hit off the backboard wrongly. That miss, with the Hoosiers down 9-6, was followed by two OSU free throws on the other end.
On the very next possession, Jackson-Davis came open in the paint thanks to an Al Durham screen. But a right-handed finish, at point-blank range, was off the mark. IU coach Archie Miller had to pull him.
“As he starts the game, he’s a little bit nervous, he’s feeling some things out,” Miller said. “But when you miss a couple, obviously, it bothers you. He gets better as the game goes on, but he’s gotta be a faster starter.”
Jackson-Davis reentered the game less than three minutes later, and he went on to score a team-high 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He successfully rebooted, reverting to form as the powerful rim-runner IU knows and loves.
But what happens while Jackson-Davis is on the sideline is concerning. During that brief respite, Ohio State ran away. OSU’s Duane Washington hit a 3. Then the Buckeyes’ star forward, E.J. Liddell, blocked Durham on one end, beating his chest after the shot clock expired. Liddell splashed a 3-pointer on the subsequent possession.
What was once a 6-2 IU lead was a 21-6 hole. In no time.
Jackson-Davis’ slow starts have signaled the same for the Hoosiers as a whole. In the last five games, the 6-foot-9 sophomore has shot a combined 0-of-13 from the field in the first 10 minutes of each contest. That’s a drag on the entire team, which is shooting just 20-of-74, or 27%, in the opening 10 minutes of those five games.
In all of Big Ten play, Jackson-Davis is just 12-of-42 from the field in the first half of first halves — or 28.6%.
At times, IU has been able to overcome a bad 10 minutes. In the Hoosiers’ second win over Iowa, they hit just one of their first 12 shots, going on field-goal droughts of 4:21, 4:34, and 5:13 in the first half. But sticky team defense mitigated the effect of Jackson-Davis’ 2-of-7 start, which was just 0-of-2 through the first 10 minutes.
IU was barely able to overcome a 1-of-13 start at Northwestern — including a 0-of-4 first 10 minutes for Jackson-Davis — eventually pulling out a win in double overtime. A void in production from Jackson-Davis was overwhelmingly obvious at OSU, however, as the Buckeyes established their early 15-point lead.
“Our offense to start games is having a hard time keeping pace,” Miller said. “Against a team like this, you’re not going to be able to function from (down 17-6). You’re going to be playing uphill the whole time. Our starts are hurting us, and I think a lot of it has to do with easy baskets we’re not converting.”
Jackson-Davis had two of them at least, off the backboard, at close range.
As the Hoosiers look to bounce back Wednesday versus Minnesota, they need to fix a myriad of issues. Turnovers are starting to become a problem with 13 and 15, respectively, in IU’s last two contests. Rebounding wasn’t up to par last time out, either, as the Buckeyes were the more physical team.
But slow starts may be the most concerning trend, especially at home. Especially with Jackson-Davis.
At Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the lack of fans in such a cavernous venue has been jarring. When there is no surplus of energy in the building, it’s even more troubling when one of IU’s best energy producers, Jackson-Davis, is sluggish out of the gate. Jackson-Davis knows it.
Avoiding those starts, though, is a tricky balance. Jackson-Davis can’t be laidback. But he can’t be too eager and play too sped up.
“The last few games, I’ve been starting slow,” Jackson-Davis said. “It’s just taking my time at the rim and finishing those shots. I feel like I did better with that as the game progressed.”
Jackson-Davis is undeniably important to the Hoosiers’ success. Opposing teams know that, as well.
Post traps and doubles are a part of life for IU’s most consistent presence on player-of-the-year watch lists. Despite all of the attention, Jackson-Davis is top three in the Big Ten in points (19.6) and rebounds (9.4) per game, as well as fourth in field goal percentage (53%). Those are significant improvements from his freshman campaign.
There have just been times where Jackson-Davis hasn’t been at his best. Against Rutgers’ Myles Johnson, one of the better post defenders in the Big Ten, IU’s star forward finished with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting. In two contests versus Illinois and star 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, Jackson-Davis was a combined 9-of-31 from the floor. His shots off the backboard were just off.
Combined with IU’s inconsistent backcourt production, the inconsistencies of Jackson-Davis have made the Hoosiers even less reliable offensively. At OSU, it was all too apparent, partially because Durham, Armaan Franklin, and Khristian Lander combined for 11 of IU’s 15 turnovers.
“Our guards’ inability all game long to draw assists, passes, to be able to not try to score on the hurt, so to speak, to not share it on drives, hurt us,” Miller said.
The small margins this basketball team must operate within — with ball security and defense and rebounding being so important — become an unreasonably tight squeeze when Jackson-Davis struggles.
Jackson-Davis rebounded during the OSU game, finishing the first half at 4-of-7 from the field. But IU could never completely erase the hole created by that slow start. Not only did IU’s offense suffer, but its defense collapsed.
“He’s gotta be able to knock a couple in early in the game for us because he’s the focus point of the defense, you know? If we can get him an easy basket, to me, that will help the cause,” Miller said. “He’ll come around with it.”
And that’s the note Miller left it on. As much as he has praised Jackson-Davis’ talent, Miller has also commended the star forward’s work ethic and good intentions. IU hopes, obviously, this problem will be solved.
“We’re working hard with him. He had a great workout (Friday),” Miller said. “He’s coachable.”