Getting better all the time: Tom Crean’s culture of player development

  • 10/08/2015 10:38 am in

As Tom Crean built his first Indiana recruiting classes, he sold his future vision of the program. Winning would be scarce to start. But stick with the hard-working culture and the long hours that come with it, and the on-court success would come.

Within that culture is an attention to detail on all aspects of a basketball player. Add it up year over year and Crean has shown a strong suit for player development. It’s been a major foundation for his program building at Marquette and Indiana.

Player development is something recruits reference often when talking about the Indiana program. It’s also something Crean, his staff, his players and former players take a great deal of pride in discussing.

“A lot of guys improve and you can really see it, you just have to look,” Victor Oladipo told Inside the Hall. “I’m just one example, I improved drastically. I credit every thing over there. All of the development, the hard work, the coaching staff, the strength and conditioning coach getting my body right and me just buying in.”

But it isn’t something fans get to see up close. So what goes into it? Why is it successful? And what makes Crean one of the best in the country at making his players better and developing pros?

The answers begin in the recruiting process.

Both at Marquette and Indiana, there are examples of Crean and his staff identifying players who weren’t highly ranked but whom they developed into professionals.

The stories of both Dwyane Wade and Oladipo are most frequently referenced, but they’re far from the only examples.

Guys like Wesley Matthews, Steve Novak and Travis Diener were just a few of the success stories at Marquette. None of them were top 50 recruits and all of them went on to play in the NBA.

And at Indiana, beyond the three NBA lottery picks, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Verdell Jones and others have gone on to play professionally.

“He meant everything to me when I needed him most in college,” Wade told Inside the Hall. “Being a father figure, a friend, being a disciplinarian. Being tough on me when I needed it. He meant everything to me then and he still means a lot to me now. He’s a mentor, voice of reason, a lot of things.”

***

A glance up and down Indiana’s current roster shows three McDonald’s All-Americans and several other three or four star prospects, many of whom are likely to go on to play in the NBA.

Nick Zeisloft isn’t one of those guys.

A rare graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining at the time of his departure from Illinois State, Zeisloft arrived last July as an addition that drew skepticism from fans.

In two seasons at Illinois State, Zeisloft never averaged more than 6.9 points per game. But Crean and his staff saw something more in Zeisloft, particularly entering a season in which the Hoosiers were going to have to use spacing and 3-point shooting to find success offensively.

“Coach Crean watched all of my film and saw areas where I could improve with the ball, not just off the ball, catch and shoot,” Zeisloft told Inside the Hall last week. “At Illinois State, I was very one-dimensional with just catch and shoot and maybe a shot fake, pull-up here and there.

“But coach Crean got me going off ball screens, going off triple handoffs, attacking the rim, working on different midrange floaters, runners, different finishes and pull-ups that I had never really worked on since basically high school because I was more one-dimensional. But here, he works on every aspect of your game and just develops a complete player out of every one of his players.”

Last season, Zeisloft had the second highest offensive rating of any player in the country, according to KenPom.com. He shot 45 percent on 3-pointers, including 51.4 percent in Big Ten play.

He’s not the only guy who has experienced major improvements in shooting in the Indiana program under Crean and associate head coach Tim Buckley, who several players call the team’s “shot doctor.”

Watford went from a 31.4 percent 3-point shooter as a freshman to 48.4 percent by his senior season. Watford also grew from an average defensive rebounder in his early years of college to the seventh best on the defensive boards by his senior season.

Current senior Yogi Ferrell made 23 shots from behind the arc as a freshman. He made a combined 170 his sophomore and junior seasons while also cutting his turnover percentage from 24.5 as a freshman to 14.2 last season as a junior.

The shooting jump Oladipo made in his junior season, one in which he hit 44 percent of his 3s, is a major reason his NBA stock skyrocketed. Oladipo, who entered college as a small forward, also improved his ball handling so drastically that the Orlando Magic took him No. 2 overall in the 2013 NBA draft with the intention of playing him at point guard.

“When you first get here, coach Crean focuses on turning your hips and having your left foot one, two,” Ferrell told Inside the Hall. “So that’s what I would focus on after practice and just shooting by myself was the mechanics of it. And we’ve got a great, great shooting coach with coach (Tim) Buckley. He tells us to be up with the ball, elbow under the ball, so with every shot, I focus on those things. With that going into my senior year, I feel like I’m even a better shooter now than I’ve ever been.”

Fans arriving early to Assembly Hall may notice Buckley and Collin Hartman going through a shooting routine, one that helped Hartman develop into a 47.5 percent 3-point shooter last season.

Zeisloft says he does something similar with Buckley’s instruction.

“They see the details. Coach Buckley and I do mine before the shoot around in the afternoon,” Zeisloft says. “So we’re both basically doing the same thing. Coach Buck sees my elbow when it’s popping out a little bit, he sees my chest when it’s fading back a little bit, he sees my chin up and tells me to keep my chin down. It’s the little things.”

***

When you watch an Indiana practice, the intensity, tempo and attention to detail immediately stand out.

In last Friday evening’s practice, Indiana’s second of that day, Crean was already challenging his players to step it up defensively. In one particular three-quarter court, four-on-four drill, the emphasis was on pressuring the ball.

And when the ball pressure wasn’t where it needed to be and the ball handler wasn’t being turned by the defender before it reached half court, the whistle blew.

Staying low, technique and footwork were all major points of emphasis. Freshman McDonald’s All-American Thomas Bryant, who has a 7-foot-6 wingspan, was defending all over the court, even on the perimeter.

At one point, Crean stopped Bryant and stood next to him, instructing him to bend his knees while also finding a spot comfortable enough to move efficiently with his large frame.

“Get those arms out there,” Crean told Bryant. “And that’s going to be a problem for people.”

Bryant was also already getting schooled from end to end and running right at the rim, a move that made Cody Zeller one of the most efficient big men in the country during his two year stay in the program.

You won’t hear talk of positions and that’s by design. Crean and his staff want players to contribute in a variety of ways, which is why you might see Ferrell playing in a variety of spots offensively throughout a game.

“When I committed here, I didn’t think Indiana was a player development program,” Ferrell said. “But being in here, especially with this being my fourth year, they definitely do it. Coach doesn’t like to coach position guys. He likes to coach basketball players.”

Before that freedom is established, developing discipline through repetition is stressed.

“I think the discipline comes in the form of the details and doing things over and over again,” Buckley explained. “I think eventually it becomes great freedom. I think for some guys it’s different, but for some of them, they come here because they want the ability to step out on the floor and make plays.

“But you even have perimeter guys who are going to work on their post up game as well because they’re great free throw shooters, so why wouldn’t you put them down there and try to get fouled? You’re always trying to expand guys’ games and put them into position to have the most success.”

Wade, who has won three NBA championships with the Miami Heat and was the star of Crean’s 2003 Marquette team that reached the Final Four, thought he needed to get back to some of those basics last offseason.

So he, along with several of his Heat teammates, Oladipo and Zeller, went to Bloomington last August to do just that.

“Sometimes as an NBA player, a lot of things are going on and you kind of forget about the basics of things,” Wade said of the experience. “We were able to go back there and get to the fundamentals of the game, get back to the basics, to the reasons we all started playing this game. Everybody enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.”

Fran Fraschilla, a former head coach at Manhattan and St. John’s who now serves as a college basketball and NBA draft analyst for ESPN, says a key to players getting better under Crean is his method of teaching.

“They break down basketball skills in a way that is very teachable and then they add the intensity of individual workouts and team practices on a daily basis,” Fraschilla said. “And so, by accident, you have to get better because there’s a certain level of commitment to effort and a commitment to understanding what these skills are about that these players have because Tom has driven it into them.”

“It’s just what he was born to do,” Wade says of Crean. “He loves to coach. I always say that he’s the kind of guy, if he sees kids outside playing basketball, he’s going to get out of his car and coach them. He’s just a born leader and a born coach.”

***

To this day, Oladipo and Wade both talk of Crean using terms like father figure, mentor and friend.

But both are also quick to point out that beyond the basketball side of things, there’s a mentality that Crean helped instill in them that lives within them to this day.

“He broke me down mentally a lot of times, but he built me to be stronger,” Wade says. “Physically, I had the tools and the talent, I just mentally had to understand and know where I could go.”

When Indiana won the 2013 Big Ten championship in Ann Arbor, one of the images that is still etched in people’s minds is Crean and Oladipo embracing on the floor of the Crisler Center.

Tears were visible in the eyes of Oladipo, who arrived at Indiana as the No. 141 recruit in the Rivals rankings for 2010 and left in three years with a degree and as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.

“You have to buy into it. I personally did and look at the outcome,” Oladipo told Inside the Hall. “They do a great job and I think they’re the best in the country at player development and getting guys ready. Players individually improving, I think they’re the best in the country at it. Coach Crean and the staff have great philosophies. Young guys just have to go in there and buy into it and actually work hard.

“A lot goes into it, blood, sweat and tears. But he definitely pushes you to another level. You have to want to improve. I wanted to get better and then with a system like that and a mentality like that, the sky is the limit for anybody.”

Filed to:

  • Gregory Spera

    For Crean’s well deserved reputation for player development to take hold, the players have to stick around long enough to be developed. Eleven players have transferred out or been kicked of the team in just the last two years. That’s not player development, that’s player attrition. A little more continuity would be nice. Was really looking forward to watching the “development” of players like Davis, Perea, Holt, and even April and Hoetzel.

  • INUnivHoosier

    I suppose there might be an argument that those are guys who didn’t “buy in.” In that case, maybe moving on is the best for both parties.

    I was definitely looking forward to seeing some of those guys develop, though. Another guy I wanted to see stick around was Remy.

  • TomJameson

    Come on Gregory, a good article like this one, showcasing one of the better things about CTC, and the IU BB program itself, and the first comment has to go south. EVERYBODY know you don’t like Crean, but can’t you give him credit for anything??

  • Gregory Spera

    Hey, I said Crean’s reputation for player development was “well deserved.” I just wish he had more sustained opportunities to use those great teaching skills.

  • CreamandCrimson

    I think he did give him credit for something…”For Crean’s well deserved reputation for player development to take hold”. His first sentence is a compliment. For a player to develop, he needs to be on campus long enough to do so. I don’t think there’s any purpose in rehashing all of the issues with the player attrition because we all have definitely established our individual opinions on it and nothing new is happening there but he’s not exactly wrong.

  • TomJameson

    …”For Crean’s well deserved reputation for player development to take hold,,,” Is a back-handed compliment leading directly into your comments on the transfers and dismissals. All have been beaten to death, so not getting into those. LOL

    Players who don’t develop, and April is the best example, don’t take advantage, and don’t put in the work – simple. Coaching gives the fundamentals and the framework for improvement, but the players have to put in the extra work to get that kind of improvement Vic talks about.

  • Gregory Spera

    Not many human beings have Vic’s work ethic. Oladipo is a special dude.

  • TomJameson

    That is the absolute truth! Vic was driven to succeed, and seems like he still is.

    But IU has some kids that seem to want to work hard, OG and Juwan come to mind, but I know there are more. Pretty sure the coaching staff looks for those attributes. They get their share of whiffs, but then they connect on some solid hits as well.

  • inLinE6

    True. I wasn’t sure why Remy decided to transfer, barring hesitation at one point that he still wanted to stay. He was to get more minutes and could end up being a starter.

  • b_side

    Can’t argue with your POV on attrition, it’s been a rough couple of years. But it’s unfair to judge only on the last two seasons. This article is about Crean’s body of work.

  • Gregory Spera

    Hope your recovery was complete and there was no permanent damage! If my comments sometimes tend to stir the pot, I never mind a little well mannered back-and-forth. It’s always good.

  • straight no chaser

    I also ask myself (and you all): have any of Crean’s players gone on to successful coaching careers?

  • Young Hoosier

    Well none of them are really old enough are they? Wade, Novak and Diener are some of his oldest from back at Marquette.

  • Young Hoosier

    Too bad we can’t get some to stick around lately. Yogi, Troy and Colin are the only ones who have been at Indiana for 3 or 4 years. I wish we had players leaving for the NBA instead of another school but I guess it is what it is.

  • HoosierStuckInKY

    With Derek Elston taking an administrative role now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually tested the coaching waters.

  • David Macer

    This is by far the best write up on CTC and the rest of his staff. Us “no-nothings” need to take notice and watch even closer now in game situations.

  • David Macer

    His tree still isn’t that large.

  • David Macer

    That one was a miss. The others, no so much. MH may end up regretting his transfer.

  • Young Hoosier

    In Crean’s time we’ve gotten to see a lot of variety. 3 terrible teams. A good team. A great team. 2 mediocre teams. Buzzer beaters that we’ve won and lost. Blow outs that we’ve won and lost. Great players and bad players. High character players and low character players. Teams with players that have stayed and teams with a high turnover rate. Good defense wroth bad offense and good offense with bad defense. Big time upsets and getting upset. Cheers and boo’s. I don’t know if there is a situation we fans haven’t seen the last 7 seasons.

  • Young Hoosier

    Indiana vs Penn State has been moved to ESPN.

  • millzy32

    You pretty much summed it up there. We’ve seen it all but what we haven’t yet seen and we strongly desire is consistency. If that ever happens it will be a very very good thing. (As long as the consistency is good and not bad:)

  • millzy32

    It’s good to come out on the main site and see that the same players in the forum still are arguing with each other:) It actually brings a sly smile to my face.

  • Gregory Spera

    Ha! We just can’t help ourselves! I would still recommend the premium forum to everyone. That’s where the REAL action is!

  • straight no chaser

    EVERYBODY knows Gregory doesn’t like Crean? I don’t. I think he has actually been pretty generous for someone who is not a big fan of his coaching. Why are you speaking for EVERYBODY? He made a specific point which he actually believes and is sincere about.

  • Young Hoosier

    We have seen consistently bad. But the next step is consistently being Top 10 every year.

  • straight no chaser

    Just the other day you and Jameson were accusing me and other fans of being in the “pitchforks” crowd for critiquing the statement that defense is easier to teach than offense, and for seeming to be critical of Crean, when I was just critiquing the Fraschilla statement. Now you seem to be leading the march of “pitchforks”. You need some consistency yourself. I will take Crean criticism, but not from you (for the record).

  • straight no chaser

    I may not agree with the content of the article, but great writing by Alex.

  • RAYBIRD

    Uhm, Crean doesn’t really develop players. Vic was an outlier, let’s take him out of the equation.

    Will Sheehey regressed his senior season, extremely disappointing. Cody Zeller never turned out a complete offensive performance (especially with a jumper / and that consistent lowering his should business was painful to watch) [And… speaking of CZ, if CTC did not get him to go to IU, which he had to do seeing he was from the state of Indiana, IU would still be bad. That’s a fact. If CZ chose Butler instead, whoa. And I can’t give CTC too much credit for that get because he was from Indiana. If he was from California or Texas or NYC, then maybe.] Watford could have done more his senior season. Yogi runs to the baseline and leaves his feet and makes a baaad pass way too often — and was not clutch last season with buzzer/near buzzer misses against Maryland, Purdue, and MSU (free throws) — this year could change, we’ll see. Verdell was the same player all four years, same player. HMP, enough said. Jeremy Hollowell, enough said. Austin Etherington, enough said. Oh wait, all three were overrated out of HS?!?

    In 16 or 17 seasons as a head coach, Tom Crean has been to 3 Sweet 16’s, one of which went to the Final Four (Dwayne Wade being a major reason.) That’s not good.

    Should be Round of 8 or Final 4 this year, or BUST for him.

    15 years later, the firing of Bob Knight without regard for having an identified transition plan/heir apparent in place, and IU is still suffering. Undeniable fact. Let that sink in … 15 years. 15 yyyyyyyears.

  • Young Hoosier

    Are you talking to me or millzy?

  • straight no chaser

    You

  • b_side

    Patiently waiting for Jordy to hang up the shoes in favor of a suit and tie.

  • StraightOuttaBtown

    An entire article about Victor attributing his skill set and progression to Crean: “Let’s take Oladipo out of the equation.” lol ok bro

  • b_side

    Sheehey regressed, but he still surpassed expectations of a guy ranked in the 140 range. He was put in a situation that was beyond his talent. He’s a killer 6th man, no doubt. Definitely starter quality too, but not a great 2nd or 3rd scoring option. I put that more on attrition (Vic/Cody leaving early) than Crean’s ability to develop players.

  • Young Hoosier

    Oh. Which article?

  • straight no chaser

    You forgot? It shows that you’re a troll.

  • Young Hoosier

    I am confused here. Are you sure you were talking to me?

  • Young Hoosier

    I wouldn’t necessarily say he passed expectations of where his recruiting rank was by looking at others who have also been ranked in that area. But he developed well.

  • straight no chaser

    Oops I must have confused you with you know who.

  • b_side

    Who else are you referring to that’s comparable to Sheehey’s 24/7 composite ranking?

  • Robert Golden

    “I felt a little held back. There was more I could do.”–NV

    At your own risk IU recruits.

  • SilentBob

    Well whether or not that was directed at Crean or not, I’ll take the word of a future Hall of Famer and a potential all star

  • SilentBob

    Oh and that’s also one quote out of many positive ones he has made about IU. And he too has also been back to campus since moving on to the NBA

  • straight no chaser

    Okay, how many of his former players are even on a coaching career track?

  • Young Hoosier

    It just depends on what they want to do. But Dwyane Wade very well could be.

  • Gregory Spera

    Ninth pick in the 2014 NBA Lottery, 3 years, $6.59M rookie contract. With the risks come the rewards.

  • straight no chaser

    People also forget that there was a sour period between Crean and Vonleh when Crean is on record reminding fans/readers that Vonleh was supposed to still be in his last year in high school and that he might be seeing less playing time. And I think that was said well into the season.

  • straight no chaser

    You’re the one who started the attrition conversation, you little devil. LOL.

  • straight no chaser

    Yes, but even the young ones you would expect to already be on the coaching track.

  • Robert Golden

    Some kids think short term. All they think is “I’m gonna get paid and take care of my family.” Long term is one year closer to a second contract. Not just about short term money.

  • Gregory Spera

    Don’t count five star studs that leave early for the NBA. Will take as many of them as we can get.