Why pipsqueak point guard Jordan Bohannon is the most indispensable Hawkeye
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There were two freshmen men’s college basketball players last year who produced at least 175 assists and 80 3-pointers.
Lonzo Ball became a household name at UCLA and is now a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jordan Bohannon, unknown to most of the nation, didn’t have an NBA option. He is just trying to produce an encore performance with the Iowa Hawkeyes, a 6-foot pipsqueak preparing to excel again among giants.
“He'll be a marked man. They're going to chase him around,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery predicted. “But he's got that relentlessness about him. He's smart, he's quick, he's tough, and he's got an incredible ability to make shots, especially under pressure.”
Iowa is coming off a 19-15 season that ended in the National Invitation Tournament. That result is never the goal.
As the team tries to take the next step in a 2017-18 campaign that begins Nov. 10, it’s clear that although forward Tyler Cook may be its best player, Bohannon is its most indispensable.
And that is one incredible statement for the lightly recruited, undersized hotshot out of Linn-Mar High School. Bohannon began last season as the backup to Christian Williams, as a feel-good story about a local kid who had managed to become a role player at the nearby big university where his father, Gordy, once played quarterback.
Bohannon scored 34 points in his first six games at Iowa.
And then McCaffery put him into the starting lineup and watched him take off.
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Bohannon scored 23 points in his first start at Notre Dame. He followed with 20 vs. Omaha, put up 24 in a win at Maryland and hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to stun Wisconsin.
The finale of his rookie season was historic. Bohannon became the first Hawkeye ever to have double-doubles in points and assists in three consecutive games.
He finished with 89 3-pointers, shattering Matt Gatens' Iowa freshman record of 52. His 175 assists was 35 more than Jeff Horner had in his 2003 Hawkeye debut.
“Freshmen don’t do that. I think that really talks about how special he’s going to be here,” marveled Iowa forward Ryan Kriener, a close friend of Bohannon’s.
“If we get stagnant, he can get the ball and kind of take over.”
Perhaps most impressive was that the 180-pound Bohannon managed to lead Iowa with 1,005 minutes played, only once showing any hint of frailty when he logged 18 scoreless minutes in a loss at Michigan State.
Over the course of 34 games, Bohannon somehow went from the backup with a good back story to the never-back-down soul of his team.
He is one of four Hawkeyes whom McCaffery is bringing to New York City for Thursday’s Big Ten media day gathering. Cook, junior Nicholas Baer and Dom Uhl, the team’s lone senior, are the others.
Now a sophomore expected to lead a young and deep squad, Bohannon indicated this week that he intends to find a way to raise his performance.
“Hopefully my freshman year of college isn’t where I draw the line on where my potential can be,” Bohannon said.
“Just knowing I have the ball most of the time and I’m always going to be the one making the decisions on the court, especially at the end of games, I’m always going to put that burden on my shoulder and try to make the most of it.”
Where can he get better? Would you believe it starts with defense?
Bohannon knew he was going to get picked on defensively last year. It wasn’t just his small stature, but also his lack of elite speed. He struggled to stay in front of opposing point guards off their initial dribble, and that's partly why the Hawkeyes were a subpar defensive team.
This summer, Bohannon started studying film of former Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who overcame some physical limitations to be a three-year starter and grab 377 steals.
“He was able to stop that first step off of dribble penetration. He got a lot of steals and charges,” Bohannon said of Craft. “I see just how smart he was on the court and the coaches tell me, ‘You can definitely use your smarts as he did.’ They think I can get two or three steals a game just being active and aggressive in the passing lanes.”
Bohannon also spent the summer working on his own dribble penetration, a means to opening up more shots for his teammates.
But his long-distance shooting prowess remains. As does his willingness to launch, at any time and from any spot up to 30 feet from the basket.
Bohannon attempted 214 3-pointers last season, nearly as many as graduated star shooting guard Peter Jok (221). In seven games, Bohannon hoisted 10 or more attempts from beyond the arc. If that sounds like too many, consider he made 53 percent of those shots.
His teammates love that about him.
“He can hit three 3s in a minute or so, and that’s a huge thing,” said junior guard Brady Ellingson, a 47-percent 3-point shooter himself.
“He was a great leader for us, and we could always count on him to make a play when we needed it.”
McCaffery said he’s not worried about his depth at point guard, but there’s no question that his team needs Bohannon on the court for as many minutes as possible if it is to reach its ceiling.
Ellingson is one of only two players on Iowa’s roster who could potentially be Bohannon’s backup this season. Williams is the other, and he is trying to adapt his game to play more at the ‘2,’ knowing that there will be little need for Bohannon to rest.
Bohannon was one of 20 athletes this week named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s top point guard. He has long asserted that his conditioning will allow him to play heavy minutes. He also never drew more than three fouls in a game last season, meaning he doesn’t get forced to the bench for that reason.
“He's a much better athlete than people think. He's a much better defender in terms of physicality than people think,” McCaffery said.
“The games in the Big Ten are so intense and so physical, and there's such incredible emotion that goes into them. Especially when you travel on the road, you need somebody with those kinds of qualities. And he's got them.”
Now, it’s a question of what additional qualities Bohannon can add. The answer may define the Hawkeyes’ season.