Final Grades: On Justin Smith, and Meeting High Expectations

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — They say the best ability is availability, and there is a sliver of truth to that. And for Indiana junior Justin Smith, there was never any concern about him showing up for the Hoosiers.

The 6-foot-8 forward from Buffalo Grove, Ill., started all 32 games for Indiana and played more minutes (971) than anyone. He was the only Hoosier to average more than 30 minutes a game (30.3). There was a lot of good on his stat line, with only freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis scoring more points or grabbing more rebounds, and no one making more steals (31) than Smith.

But still, when it's all said and done, we were still left wanting for more from Smith. He's so athletic, so strong and so smart that it's reasonable to expect more from him, and we didn't always get that. He averaged 12.5 points per game in November and December in the softer part of the schedule, but just 9.1 points the rest of the season. 

That's not enough for a team scratching and clawing simply to make the NCAA tournament and finishing the season with a better — but still not good enough — 20-12 record.

Let's take a look at Smith's season.

Indiana's Justin Smith was second in points scored and rebounding for the Hoosiers this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

By the numbers

  • Games played: 32
  • Games started: 32
  • Minutes per game:  30.3
  • Points per game: 10.4
  • Assists per game: 0.9
  • Rebounds per game: 5.2
  • Field goal percentage: 49.2
  • 3-point percentage: 26.3
  • Free throw percentage: 67.3

Best game

Indiana 66, Northwestern 62  on Jan. 8, 2020: Indiana had come out of its Christmas break with bad losses to Arkansas and Maryland and desperately needed a win at home against Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern. So it was stunning that the Wildcats had a 10-point lead midway through the second half.

That's when Smith took over. He scored five points in a 12-2 run to get the game tied at 52-52. And after they fell behind again, he scored five straight points to get it tied again at 59-all. And with help from Jackson-Davis and Al Durham, the Hoosiers were able to close it out and avoid a devastating situation with a 66-62 victory. That trio scored 24 of Indiana's final 26 points.

"We were definitely lacking some energy," said Smith, who finished with 18 points, his highest total in a Big Ten game all season. "Why, I couldn't tell you. I just think it's kind of, we need to be more engaged going into it."

Justin Smith can often be a lock-down defender for Indiana. (USA TODAY Sports)

Things I liked

There's no question that Justin Smith can guard people. He was Indiana's best defender on a team that was good but not great defensively overall. He led the team in steals, one that wasn't very good otherwise in creating turnovers. He also rebounded well enough for someone playing the 3-spot (small forward) most of the time.

He also has the ability to take the ball to the basket, and he's strong enough to finish. He made 65 percent of his shots at the rim and he was second on the team in dunks (22).  He's a smart kid — he was the university's male scholar-athlete of the month in January — but his shot selection wasn't always the greatest. 

Things I didn't like

Smith's overall game has improved in each of his three seasons, but it's still a major disappointment that he's not a better perimeter shooter. He could be an NBA player with a better jump shot — he's not there now — and that's still been a big failure in his game.  He has the potential to be an all-Big Ten player, but not without a jump shot.

Smith was just 10-for-38 from 3-point range, a 26.3 percent average. It's almost comical that this was a big improvement from his sophomore year, when he shot 21.9 percent. Most fans — and all Indiana coaches — almost cringe when he tees it up from long range. In fact, he made only three three-pointers in close wins (Connecticut, Nebraska and Northwestern) all season. He simply needs to put in the work to be a better shooter if he wants a future on the pro level after next season.

Lastly, it has to be said that there were just too many games where Smith simply disappeared. There was too much standing around, and a lack of engagement. This wasn't all the time, of course, but it happened often enough to be noticeable.  He never scored more than 10 points in Indiana's final eight Big Ten games. He really needs to be a max-effort guy, especially this late in his career.

Best video

There was a great moment in Indiana's exhibition game where Justin Smith blocked a shot of Gannon's Matt Johnson. They were former high school teammates in Illinois.

Final Grade: B-minus

In the first three installments of this series, there's been some griping among fans that I've been grading on a curve and giving guys the benefit of the doubt too much. I don't see that personally, but my B-minus grade for Smith probably defies his statistics as one of this team's more important players.

My issue with Smith is that I just want to see so much more from him. When he's playing the 3, he almost always has a physical advantage on the player guarding him, and I see no reason why he can't be that slasher who gets to the basket more often. He's not Mike Woodson or Calbert Cheaney or even, dare I say, Romeo Langford in having a great innate ability to get to the rim, but that should be more of his game, and more of an emphasis on this team. 

Better effort, and this grade goes up a little. Better shot selection and it goes up a little more. Better shot-making ability and, let's be real, it goes up a lot. He can still be a star at Indiana, but his time is running out. And that's why the grade might seem a little harsh, because I expect so much more.

Your thoughts? Please join the conversation in our Community thread.

Indiana's Justin Smith grabs a rebound against Michigan State. (USA TODAY Sports)

Related content on Justin Smith

  • THE BAROMETER: It's clear that Justin Smith is the barometer guy on this team, and when he plays well, the Hoosiers play well. CLICK HERE
  • SMITH HELPS BEAT PENN STATE: Indiana needed a home win against Penn State, and Justin Smith came up big when he needed it. CLICK HERE

Complete list of  'Final Grades' stories

  • PART 1, DEVONTE GREEN: Breaking down the season for Indiana senior guard and co-captain Devonte Green. CLICK HERE
  • PART 2, DE'RON DAVIS: Indiana's senior big man battled injuries throughout his career, but stayed healthy in 2020 and played a small role. CLICK HERE
  • PART 3, AL DURHAM: The junior guard leads Indiana in three-point shooting percentage and carries a big load. CLICK HERE
  • PART 4, JUSTIN SMITH: The junior forward was second in scoring and rebounding for the Hoosiers, but there seemed to be something missing. CLICK HERE
  • PART 5, JOEY BRUNK: The transfer from Butler added a lot to the Indiana roster, both on and off the court. CLICK HERE
  • PART 6, ROB PHINISEE: The sophomore point guard never was the same after a lengthy abdominal injury. CLICK HERE
  • PART 7, JEROME HUNTER: It was great to see Jerome Hunter back out on the floor after missing entire freshman season. CLICK HERE
  • PART 8, RACE THOMPSON: The redshirt sophomore was productive off the bench, and had a happy homecoming in Minnesota. CLICK HERE
  • PART 9, DAMEZI ANDERSON: We take a deep dive into what happened to Damezi Anderson, whose offensive game completely disappeared. CLICK HERE
  • PART 10: TRAYCE JACKSON-DAVIS: The standout freshman was Indiana's best player all season, and it wasn't even close. CLICK HERE
  • PART 11: ARMAAN FRANKLIN: Some magical moments back home in Indianapolis this season for Indiana's freshman guard. CLICK HERE
Comments (3)
No. 1-2
Brendan Armitage
Brendan Armitage

Justin is smart, strong, jumps well, and is durable. He can play defense and can rebound. He can't shoot, dribble, or pass. He's a talented student playing basketball, but not really a basketball player. He's not just inconsistent. He really doesn't seem to care about the activity of playing. basketball itself.
He needed to develop an outside shot between his 2nd and 3rd seasons, and didn't. (He did develop a nice arc on his FT shooting, so that was good.). Agreed that he could play NBA ball with a 3-ball, but that doesn't appear to be his intention.
This team needs to play 4 out and TJD inside to win the B1G conference title. You can't do that with 2 or 3 guys playing who can't stretch the floor. With Phinisee at the 1, Durham/Lander at the 2, and either Hunter/Geronimo/Galloway playing the 3, Justin had better hope that Thompson doesn't develop an outside shot at the 4 and that 2 of our wings don't pop as well, or he may not have much playing time as a senior.


It wasn't long into this season before I realized that IU needed a legitimate 3 point threat every night. However, it became very apparent that the team also needed a Point Guard. I think the 3 point threat would have made a tremendous difference and could have impacted the win/loss record by as many as 5-7 games. A good point guard makes everybody better. The entire team would have had better stats with a good solid point guard.