Leistikow: Iowa's Jordan Bohannon has always wanted to prove he belongs

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Once Jordan Bohannon got the news over the summer that he needed a second hip surgery, it oddly opened a window for him to play for the Iowa Hawkeyes sooner rather than later.

That’s emblematic of the warrior mentality and unique career that Bohannon has displayed on the basketball floor over three-plus seasons while wearing the black and gold.

And, as most of us in Iowa know, playing through pain has been old hat for one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in Big Ten Conference history.

It’s fair to say that Bohannon has been playing through injuries for roughly 70% of his Hawkeye career, which has spanned 112 games; injuries that would normally knock a player to the bench for months. Yet Bohannon has continued to give his body to Iowa basketball, often to the tune of 35-plus minutes a game.

Jordan Bohannon is shown at Iowa's media day in October, two months before he would play his final game of the 2019-20 season against Iowa State.

Even Bohannon’s healthiest season, as a freshman, began with a broken finger in the opening weeks. He shot 9-for-37 in Iowa’s first six games before being thrust into the starting lineup at Notre Dame … and, after making seven 3-pointers in South Bend, his story would change forever.

It's been so long, you might have forgotten how his freshman campaign finished with a flurry — his game with eight 3-pointers at Maryland; a game-winning 3 in the final 10 seconds at Wisconsin; and double-doubles in Iowa’s three postseason games (a combined 68 points, 34 assists).

Late-winter 2017 Bohannon to date marks the healthiest Bohannon we’ve witnessed.

Because his health hasn’t cooperated since.

To enter the conversation about what's ahead, it’s important to rehash his past battles, both mentally and physically.

Bohannon played through plantar fasciitis in his right foot throughout his sophomore season; there were days he couldn’t get out of bed because the pain was so bad. But he was Iowa’s only available point guard. Christian Williams had transferred, and Connor McCaffery was sick. Bohannon's defense suffered, but he took the criticism and the physical beating while gutting through an extremely disappointing 14-19 Iowa season.

It was during that season that I wrote a longer story about his older brother Zach’s promise to attend all of Jordan’s games as a Hawkeye. The biggest motivator was to support his brother emotionally. During the reporting of that story, Jordan told me the outside pressures combined with his internal drive had brought him to tears.

Jordan Bohannon experienced his first NCAA Tournament win in March against Cincinnati. He hopes that more are ahead as he prepares to wait for a fifth-year senior season.

He openly wondered if he belonged at Iowa, his life-long favorite school.

“A lot of people on the outside don’t understand what student-athletes go through,” Bohannon said then, “the kind of pressure you’re put (under).”

Then came a 2018-19 season that was hindered by constant pain in his right hip. Bohannon’s scoring average dropped to 11.6 points a game, down from 13.5 as a sophomore. Again, his defense suffered as the outside world had little idea that he was playing on a hip that needed surgery. Still, Bohannon's 3-point marksmanship was available, and Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes rode it into the NCAA  Tournament. Bohannon's late-game heroics delivered at least four Hawkeye wins — at Penn State, against Northwestern on a buzzer-beater and twice against Indiana. Iowa was an overtime away from the Sweet 16. 

What Bohannon didn’t know then, though, was that the right-hip pain was masking the pain that would surface in his left hip during rehab.

Then the news he needed another surgery.

Then another gritty idea.

Knowing he would have an air-tight case for a medical-hardship waiver — a must-have surgery with a recovery of 6-9 months — Bohannon challenged himself to see what he could offer the Hawkeyes. He learned that he could play up to 10 games in the first half of Iowa’s season and still qualify for a redshirt season and a fifth year of eligibility.

As I wrote Monday, there is ample precedent for getting the fifth year with his condition. It should be a done deal.

And there’s no doubt he gave his body for the Hawkeye cause again.

Sure, there was some self-serving motivation in playing 10 games — to take the opportunity to play extra basketball without losing eligibility. But No. 1, he wanted to prove to himself he could do it. And No. 2, his mindset was to get the Hawkeyes pointed in the right direction with veteran leadership, and that’s exactly what he did. Iowa is 8-3 and certainly in NCAA Tournament contention.

Although his final act against Iowa State was the most memorable in this 10-game run because of the pregame and postgame rivalry stoking, I’d point to the game at Syracuse as being Bohannon’s finest 2 hours of this season.

With the Hawkeyes down to eight scholarship players (shooting guard CJ Fredrick was out with a quad injury), Bohannon played every single minute of the second half in a 68-54 win at the Carrier Dome.

The next Monday against Minnesota, he took it upon himself to get teammate Joe Wieskamp going. And he did. Bohannon went scoreless but delivered 10 assists, and Wieskamp’s confidence soared with a season-best 23 points.

And then came the shoe-drop moment at Iowa State, marking Iowa’s first win in Ames since 2003.

And now Thursday’s 11 a.m. surgery at the University of Iowa.

To relive that timeline is to understand that Bohannon’s heart, ultimately, has been stronger than the rest of his body for the past three years.

You could joke that his hips buckled under the huge figurative chip on Bohannon's shoulders. He’s extremely active on social media, very aware of what others are saying about him. He knows there are doubters.

So, while many scoffed at national basketball voice Jeff Goodman's suggestion Monday night that Bohannon could look at a graduate-transfer option … nobody could or should blame the young man if his interest was piqued if, say, a college-hoops blue blood showed him interest.

Few, if any, of us as this time last year would have considered Isaiah Moss-to-Kansas a credible possibility, either. But Moss is currently averaging 7.8 points and 22.8 minutes a game for the nation’s No. 1 team.

The most likely scenario, though, is Bohannon returns for a fifth year at Iowa.

Assuming his rehab goes well and that does happen, he would be on track to do some special things for the Hawkeyes in 2020-21.

It would be fun to see what a fully healthy Bohannon could do.

He already owns the school record of 284 3-pointers, but could break Jon Diebler’s Big Ten-record 374 with 91 more.

With 88.6% career accuracy from the free-throw line, he’s got a shot of breaking Steve Alford’s Big Ten-record 89.8%.

He needs 108 assists (about three a game) to tie Jeff Horner’s school-record 612.

At 1,310 career points, he would need just 269 to crack Iowa’s all-time top 10 and a decent season (say, 14 points per game) would make him the school’s No. 3 career scorer, behind Roy Marble (2.116) and Aaron White (1,859).

But Bohannon's biggest goals are team-oriented. He wants to play in a Final Four, like older brother Zach did with Wisconsin. If the current nucleus returns, I'd sure like the chances of a healthy Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, Fredrick, Wieskamp and Luka Garza to end Iowa’s Sweet 16 drought that stretches to 1999.

First and foremost, though, we should all wish the best for Bohannon as he faces another long climb back from a serious injury. He's more than earned a chance to enjoy a healthy fifth-year season.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.