Kel’el Ware is leading Indiana to wins, just like Mike Woodson knew he could

  • 12/08/2023 7:52 am in

Kel’el Ware has started to figure it out.

What is “it”, you ask? The answer is equally straightforward and quite complicated. Simply put, Ware has figured out how to play good basketball. What that really means, though, is that he’s discovered what it means to work hard every day, to push himself to new levels, and to play with people who support him and believe in him. And he’s learned what it feels like to win.

Ware is playing the best basketball of his young career, helping to lead Indiana to victories that could have been losses without the presence of the sophomore center.

His presence. At the core of it all, that is the biggest thing Ware brings to the court. Literally.

At 7 feet tall — and a long, lanky 7 feet at that — Ware is impossible to miss when he’s on the hardwood. Even sitting on the bench, his head pops up above his teammates, so he often hunches over with his hands on his knees when talking to them. Ware is a dominant force underneath the basket, currently leading the Hoosiers with 75 rebounds for an average of 9.4 per game. Those numbers place the center third in the Big Ten. The next best rebounder for Indiana is Malik Reneau, who averages 4.6 rebounds per game.

But rebounding isn’t the only thing Ware is doing well. If you’ve watched even just one of Indiana’s eight games, it’s clear to see the big man is multi-faceted. Ware hasn’t scored less than 11 points in a game, has scored at least 20 points in three games and is averaging 17.1 points per game. He’s also tied for most made 3-pointers on the team with five.

“He’s come in here, and we pushed him, and he’s played some pretty damn good basketball for us,” Mike Woodson said during media availability Thursday, two days after Indiana’s hard-fought win over Michigan.

In Indiana’s 78-75 road victory against the Wolverines, Ware continued his emerging trend of one-upping his past performances and showing exactly what he is capable of. Fancy spin moves in the post, dynamic slam dunks and unblockable hook shots yielded 13 points for Ware and his determination brought a team-high eight rebounds.

But what everyone left the game talking about was Ware’s towering presence.

With 2.2 seconds left on the clock, Indiana led 78-75 as Michigan was set to inbound the ball on the baseline. The Wolverines knew they had to get the ball down the court as fast as possible to get a shot off. The Hoosiers knew just how to stop them.

The answer is simple: when you have a 7-footer whose vertical jump requires extra boxes to measure correctly.

That vertical was on full display as Ware leaped up to meet the pass and tip the ball off his fingers, disrupting the path. He then turned around, quickly snatching the ball and celebrating with the Indiana bench, who watched the play unfold from just feet away.

“He’s seven feet tall, so we’ve got to put his butt on the ball,” Woodson said afterward.

Simple as that.

It’s also not that simple, though. Setting up plays that depend on Ware, whether defensive or offensive, shows the level of trust and confidence Woodson and the team have in the sophomore. And that hasn’t always been the case for Ware in his collegiate career.

When Ware entered the transfer portal after one year at Oregon, conversations about the center focused on his perceived laziness and lack of motor. Oregon head coach Dana Altman had even remarked on his disappointment in Ware’s lack of effort in practices and games in January of the 2022-23 season. If people knew one thing about Ware, it was probably that.

Of course, Ware was well aware of what was being said about him and was ready to prove his critics wrong. Woodson knew that. As the 2023-34 season approached, questions as to whether or not Ware would be able to step up and fit in with the Hoosiers abounded.

Now, eight games in, all you need to do is look at Ware’s statistics or listen to Woodson to find your answer. Or don’t, because that story is long in the past and Ware is providing more exciting stories now.

“I don’t even know why we’re even rehashing it, revisiting it because it’s behind him,” Woodson said Thursday. “We recruited him because we thought he could help us win basketball games and that we could, as a staff, put him in the best position possible to be successful to help us.”

Ware’s story is no longer about a player who doesn’t have a big enough work ethic. Instead, it’s about the player who continues to prove his critics wrong and works daily to become the best he can be. It’s about the player who cares immensely about doing everything he can to succeed and the coach who believes in him.

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