IOWA CITY, Ia. — Look no further than the evolution of Peter Jok to explain how this year’s Iowa basketball team has launched itself into the nation’s top 10.
Jok is truly healthy for the first time since a serious knee injury in the summer of 2010. And with every stroke of his sweet jump shot, his confidence seems to grow — if that’s possible for someone who says he never gets nervous.
“I don’t think about the last shot. I’m always thinking about the next shot,” the junior from West Des Moines Valley said. “The next shot’s going in no matter what. When I miss, I know the next shot’s going in.”
He scored 39 points last week against two conference heavyweights and on Monday was named Big Ten Conference player of the week for the first time in his career. He’s the third different Hawkeye to win the honor this season — joining Jarrod Uthoff (in December) and Mike Gesell (last week).
Jok was the best player on the court in the two halves that mattered most for Iowa this past week. In the first 20 minutes of a 76-59 steamrolling of then-No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., Jok pumped in 19 points — tickling the nets on 6-of-8 shooting, including three 3-pointers. Iowa led 47-25 at halftime and maintained its double-digit lead.
And in Sunday’s 82-71 home win against Michigan, he shot 4-of-4 from 3-point land in the second half to help break open a tight game. Like he said, there's confidence every time.
“We didn’t worry about him as a freshman. And now all of a sudden he’s Tim Hardaway III out there,” Michigan coach John Beilein said, comparing Jok to his former UM star. “He’s getting all kinds of good stuff and good looks, and they’ve become a good team.”
Jok’s proficiency from outside (a team-best 36 3-pointers at a 39 percent clip) and ability to create his shot have meant wonders for the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes, who are humming to their first 5-0 Big Ten Conference start in 19 years.
Jok has distracted opponents' attention from Uthoff, Iowa's star forward and the Big Ten’s scoring leader at 18.6 points a game. Jok's presence as an outside marksman has allowed more room near the rim — softening things up for center Adam Woodbury and creating more driving lanes for guards Gesell and Anthony Clemmons.
“It makes me and Mike’s job a lot easier, when he’s making a lot of shots,” Clemmons said. “It spreads the floor out.”
As Beilein correctly pointed out, Jok has been a work in progress. As a freshman, the only member of Iowa’s recruiting Class of 2013, he had a hard time seeing the floor in games that mattered. In 16 of Iowa’s 18 Big Ten games, his minutes ranged from zero to five.
This year, he’s averaging 30.2 minutes and 15.4 points a game (No. 9 in the league) in Big Ten play. No wonder coaches are taking notice.
Stamina was a past struggle, because Jok suffers from asthma. But he improved his diet in the offseason, and even though he still uses his inhaler, those symptoms have almost gone away. He's also gotten physically stronger.
“I feel great when I get out there,” said Jok, averaging 13.9 points for the season, nearly double his 7.0 last season. “I don’t really get tired like I used to.”
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound guard, though, still has lapses. Twice at home in the last month, he’s been chewed out and booted from the team huddle by coach Fran McCaffery for sloppy play — against Tennessee Tech and Nebraska.
Jok says it’s usually careless offense that draws McCaffery’s ire.
“He’s just trying to make me a better player,” Jok said Sunday. “When I’m sloppy out there, that’s when he gets at me to try to pick up my stuff.
“He’s just trying to coach me, so I can’t really hold any grudges against him.”
In that Tennessee Tech game Dec. 22, Jok responded to the benching with five 3-pointers in 6 minutes, 29 seconds of game clock.
McCaffery knows Jok can handle the tough love.
“If you're going to get into somebody, it has to make sense to them,” McCaffery said. “OK, why am I getting into him? He deserves it. I don't pick on him. I'm not trying to build character and play mind games with him. If I'm in his face, it's because he deserves to have me in his face, and he needs to get corrected what we're talking about getting corrected.
“He's got character and he's smart, and every time I've challenged him he's come back and performed. That's who he is.”