Leistikow: Iowa's Peter Jok one of America's underappreciated stars
IOWA CITY — This week, somebody sent Peter Jok the midseason list of 25 candidates for the John Wooden Award, college basketball’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
Four players from the Big Ten Conference were on it.
The Big Ten’s runaway leading scorer wasn’t.
A major motivator?
“For sure,” Jok said.
More like a major omission.
The smooth Iowa senior is the highest-scoring player in all Power Five conferences, now at 22.9 points per game.
He’s averaging 6.3 rebounds, too, not too shabby for a shooting guard. He’s making 41 percent of his 3-pointers, 91 percent of his free throws. Second on the team in assists and steals.
The numbers alone are off the charts. And he’s doing it against defenses designed to stop him.
Just like Purdue tried to do, unsuccessfully, Thursday night.
Jok put up 29 points, six rebounds and eight assists as the Hawkeyes pulled an 83-78 upset of the No. 19 Boilermakers.
It was an all-American performance, and it helped deliver Iowa's biggest win of the season.
"He’s one of those guys that if you let him make a couple, he’s going to hit tough ones,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “You can’t let him get his head up.”
Painter knows Jok can strike quickly, and from anywhere.
He hit one from University Heights early in the second half to cut Purdue’s lead to 47-43, triggering a Painter timeout and giving Carver-Hawkeye Arena life that sustained the rest of the way.
All season long, Hawkeye fans have seen Jok take contested 25-footers and hit nothing but net. It's an uncommon skill.
Yet, as Painter said, “those are comfortable to him."
The Jok play that stuck with me most Thursday night happened in the first half.
As Purdue’s Vincent Edwards tried to drive the baseline to score, Jok blocked the shot. He scrambled to retrieve the ball, then hustled with it upcourt, sending a perfect lead pass to Christian Williams for a fast-break layin.
It was a complete play from a now-complete player.
“I knew I was going to have to be a playmaker this game,” Jok said, “to get other people open because of how aggressive they play me.”
It’s been quite the transformation for Jok, who as a freshman couldn’t get control of his conditioning and as a sophomore averaged 7.0 points a game.
Now, he’s doing it all.
And when he’s on like this, he’s at least one of the two best players in the Big Ten. The other was on the floor Thursday in Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan.
“The best stat he had tonight was probably the eight assists,” teammate Nicholas Baer said. “He’s having two or three guys on him, 10 eyes on him, but he’s also making plays for other people. When Pete’s making plays for other people, we’re a really good team.”
I’m not going to type that Jok is absolutely the best college player in the country. But I don't think you can show me 25 better.
At minimum, the Wooden omission shows that he might be one of the most underappreciated.
As I think back, Fran McCaffery news conferences rarely bring up Jok. On our Hawk Central radio show, we've spent far more time talking about Iowa's young emerging players than its steady senior.
Maybe a lot of us are a little guilty of taking Jok for granted.
Iowa’s record (11-7) could hold back Jok from some awards this year. That’s just how it works. That’s why Wisconsin (14-3) has two players on the midseason 25, including one who’s averaging 12.9 points a game.
“I can’t worry about that,” Jok said. “Most of that stuff is politics anyway.
“There’s nothing I can do about that, but I can control how I play. So I’ve just got to keep working hard.”
Jok agreed that he's playing the best basketball of his life. As a result, the former West Des Moines Valley star is on the verge of Hawkeye history.
He's already at an astonishing 413 points for the season. That’s 85 more than the next-nearest Big Ten player (Swanigan) and puts him on pace — with at least 14 games left — to surpass John Johnson’s school record of 699 points in 1970.
No Hawkeye since Fred Brown in 1971 has averaged more than the 20.5 points a game Adam Haluska registered in 2007.
More impressively than his scoring, though, Jok is making everyone else around him better.
It’s why coach Fran McCaffery used “really special” to describe what Jok did against Purdue.
“We've seen him with his jump shot and rebounding, but the way he's making plays and the way he's screening for people … he just gets how everything fits,” McCaffery said. “And he's making it easier for everybody else, which is what you want your senior captain to do.”
Where would this team be without Jok?
Certainly not 3-2 in the Big Ten with four starting freshmen.
In around two months, Jok’s Iowa career will be over. Even if the Wooden people missed the boat, it's not too late for us all to appreciate what he’s doing.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.