BLOOMINGTON -- So who is this new James Blackmon, the one who dominates, facilitates and, yes, defends for the Indiana Hoosiers?

Get past the beard and soft-spoken nature, and you find resolve merging with work ethic. Opponents pay the price.

"He's been excellent," coach Tom Crean says.

 
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Let somebody else crumble against the challenges from three major knee surgeries and the criticism that comes with being an elite player at an elite basketball program with an ultra-passionate fan base.

Blackmon thrives on it.

Sure, it's early. Three games is just a brief snapshot of the season-long marathon that could end in a March Madness rush.

Still, Blackmon has left a big impression that goes way beyond earning national-player-of-the-week honors by NBC, as well as a Big Ten co-player of the week award. He is a big reason why the No. 6 Hoosiers (3-0) are building toward another banner-generating season.

"James is a lot more explosive than he was," Crean says. "He's playing with more force. He's playing downhill more. He's covering more ground."

Oh, and one other thing. The former Bishop Luers standout is scoring like never before.

He averages 23 points and 4.7 three-pointers. Both lead the Big Ten.

That's well above his IU career average of 16.1 points, which ties him with Cody Zeller as the highest scorer among Crean's Hoosier players.

In the second half and overtime against Kansas, and in the first half against UMass Lowell, Blackmon totaled 42 points, more than a point a minute.

Not bad for a guy who missed the entire Big Ten season because of knee surgery -- and who is far from peaking.

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"To come back from an injury like that and to be a better athlete than he was, be stronger like he is, it takes time for him to get used to everything," Crean says.

Crean will eventually install more offense, which will mean more posting up for Blackmon as well as more screens for him to come off and shoot.

"We want him to get fouled," Crean said. "We can post him more than we could in the past because he's stronger.

"There are a myriad of things we can do with him as we move forward."

What the Hoosiers are doing now with Blackmon is obviously working. He's shooting 56.1 percent overall, 51.9 percent from three-point range. That's also well above his career averages of 43.6 and 40.9.

It's no coincidence that IU is averaging 95.3 points a game.

"When he's shooting like that," guard Robert Johnson says, "it spreads the court and opens it up that much more for driving lanes, so you're always putting the defense in a (tough) situation."

That's fine, but Blackmon wants more of himself.

"I feel I'm more of a playmaker and not just being a shooting or someone looking to score," he says. "I want to get others involved."

Blackmon arrived with a scorer's rep, and, boy, has he delivered. He's scored at least 20 points 15 times in 48 career college games.

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He is not the instant-emotion force teammate Thomas Bryant is, but he is playing with more fire and vocal leadership.

"He's been very vocal, especially on the defensive end," Johnson says. "Coach is big on that it's something that James has been locked into doing."

Adds Crean: "It needs to be forced. It needed to be forced out of (former IU guard Yogi Ferrell) as well. Verbal demanding, make the game easier for everybody else, that takes time. So you've got to speed up that process for them."

As for defense, in his first two seasons Blackmon reminded no one of, say, Victor Oladipo, the former IU standout who was the 2013 national defensive player of the year. It wasn't so much a lack of ability or determination as it was wandering concentration, common among young players.

This year his concentration is better to go with his improved physical development. He likely will never reach Oladipo's defensive-stopper level, but he can play defense well enough to make a difference.

"His awareness off the ball is far better," assistant coach Rob Judson says. "His help-side defense is far better. Last year his defense was getting better, as was the team's, before he got hurt. He's picked that right back up.

"He sees the ball and the man better off the ball. He's strong enough to keep the ball handler in front of him. He still has to get better, as does the whole team, in screening actions."

This article was written by Pete DiPrimio from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.