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BLOOMINGTON -- Peter Jurkin is Indiana's mystery man, a 7-foot sophomore enigma who might emerge as a shot-blocking defensive piece to this season's basketball puzzle -- and perhaps more.
“Might,” of course, is the key word for a player who knows the training room better than Miley Cyrus knows controversy.
And yet …
“He has never been in a situation where he's been absolutely just able to lay it out there healthwise,” coach Tom Crean says. “He's getting closer.”
The leg issues that cost Jurkin so much development time in high school and travel ball, and then last year for the Hoosiers, seem to be mostly resolved.
“I have worked a lot on my footwork and getting healthy,” he says.
During last Friday night's Hoosier Hysteria scrimmage he showed mobility and, in small measure, a knack for inside scoring.
Crean was pleasantly surprised.
“He made a post move. I hadn't seen that.”
Few people outside the team have seen much of Jurkin. He played one minute of Big Ten ball last year as a freshman. Because of injuries, NCAA eligibility issues and overall coaching decision, Jurkin played in just three games for a total of seven minutes. His numbers showed all zeroes except for one missed shot.
And yet, he has a nice jumper. It's good enough that Crean says, with a straight face, that “We thought about putting him in the (Hoosier Hysteria) three-point contest.”
You likely won't see many three-point attempts from Jurkin during the season, but opponents might not want leave him open inside the arc.
“My shot has gotten a lot better,” he says. “I improved a lot working on it.”
That improvement has Crean and his staff thinking about long-range shooting from Jurkin -- within reason.
“He's our stretch 5 man,” Crean says with a smile. “You've heard of the stretch 4? I'm not joking. That's what he is. He can make shots.”
For the record, a stretch 4 is a forward with outside shooting range. You almost never hear the term applied to centers, who traditionally are anchored in the post.
But then, in 21st-century ball, does a center even exist anymore?
Anyway, Jurkin tried to maximize last year by practicing against All-Big Ten forward Cody Zeller, who became the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft.
“I learned a lot from him,” Jurkin says.
One big lesson learned is what it will take to play more.
“I have to show the coaches a lot on defense, work hard and run the floor,” he says.
Beyond that, Crean says, “He has to space the floor for us. He's got to make shots, block shots, and play within himself. He still plays too high. He struggles with that and knowing how low he has to go to play defense.”
Jurkin weighs 230 pounds, which would be fine if he were, say, 6-4. But at 7-foot he remains leaner than you want for Big Ten banging, although he has spent plenty of time in the weight room with strength coach Je'Ney Jackson.
“I worked a lot on my lower body. Last year I didn't have time to work on it because I was hurt. This year will be a lot better because I worked on it a lot.”
That work is far from complete.
“He's putting weight on,” Crean says. “Is it enough for him to really be a Big Ten-level post-up player? Maybe not. But he can make shots. And that's what we need from him.”
IU need is overshadowed by family priority. Jurkin is set to return to his native South Sudan in Africa. His father, Paul Lako, is seriously ill.
“He's going through a tough thing at home right now with his father who he has not seen in years,” Crean says. “His father is so sick. He's going to be spending some time going back there. It's incredibly important that he go back because he's probably not going to see him again.”