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A legacy all his own

Luke Fischer (40) is a player often compared to Cody Zeller. But this year's Wisconsin Mr. Basketball is carving out his own legacy, as he prepares to head to college.

This article originally ran in Volume 22, Issue 9 of Inside Indiana Magazine. To subscribe, call 800-524-9527.

Justin Litscher knows he has been watching something special.

“Within the state of Wisconsin, this is the best class ever,” says Litscher, boy’s director of the Wisconsin Swing AAU basketball program. There’s ample evidence to build his case.

From talented floor generals Bronson Koenig (Wisconsin) and Duane Wilson (Marquette) to prolific shooting guard Matt Thomas (Iowa State) to sharpshooting wing Nick Fuller (Nebraska), the state is packed with high-major talent.

When the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association had to sort through a list of five names for its annual Mr. Basketball award, one rose above the aforementioned four. All of the other candidates were deserving, but in the end, they fell behind the fifth name in the field.

Luke Fischer has not lost a game since he was a sophomore at Germantown High School in suburban Milwaukee. In the last two years, he has helped construct two perfect seasons and two state championships.

Indiana-bound after high school, Fischer was never offered by in-state Wisconsin, but Litscher doesn’t think it would have mattered anyway. Fischer had his heart set on IU from his first visit in May 2011. And in Fischer, IU coach Tom Crean saw so many qualities he valued — hard work, tenacity, selflessness and hunger — offering the talented big man in the summer before his junior year was easy.

Fischer has never been a darling of recruiting rankings or highlight-reel videos. He is unassuming and quiet. “Goofy” would be another apt descriptor. That’s never mattered much to him other than to drive him to improve.

AAU teammate Bronson Koenig (24) was one of several talented candidates for Mr. Basketball this season in Wisconsin, but Fischer rose above them all.

At Germantown, he was dominant on a dominant team, averaging a double-double as a senior for a squad that only posted one single-digit victory all season and won its final two state playoff games by 20 and 29 points, respectively. Fischer starred in both contests.

So when it came time to select a Mr. Basketball, to pick the best of perhaps the best group of seniors the state of Wisconsin has ever seen, the tallest player towered above the rest. Luke Fischer, undervalued by some, underrated by others, almost impossible to stop at his level of competition, was the best player in the state of Wisconsin.

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Crean’s first memory of Fischer comes from one of his youth basketball camps at Marquette, which Fischer attended, but the urge to offer struck five years later.

Fischer was at the time playing up an age group with his AAU program, Wisconsin Swing, and while he wasn’t the No. 1 offensive option every time down the floor, he flashed certain skills Crean and his staff value, like excellent spacing, smart court movement for a big man and the ability to score on the break.

He also displayed the intangibles Crean says he loves, ones IU’s coach sees as inherent to Fischer’s Wisconsin Swing AAU program and coach Steve Showalter’s team at Germantown — toughness, desire and a competitive nature that doesn’t allow players to slow down.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons we offered him as early as we did, without really seeing him up close and personal time and time again,” Crean says.

Fischer’s recruitment was at the time rather quiet, a trait that would come to describe both the player himself and the buzz around his potential.

Athletic and strong in the lower body, Fischer's rebounding and defense are both perhaps underappreciated, but his offensive game rarely needs an introduction.

Marquette, Creighton, Drake and Boston College all had their hats in the ring, as well, though that visit in early May had the Hoosiers slightly out in front. There was at the time no desire for a quick decision, however, with a handful of other schools — perhaps most notably Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin — taking serious interest.

At the time, Fischer was still rather spindly, probably at or around 6-foot-9 without much muscle on his upper or lower body.

That would come.

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In addition to starting at forward for Germantown’s basketball team, Fischer has an alternate sport he very much enjoys — volleyball.

Athletically, it is a good fit for a tall, long-armed jumper. In basketball terms, it only enhances or sharpens those skills Fischer finds so useful, like leaping for a rebound, timing a block or simply increasing athleticism.

The sport also changed Fischer physically. His lower body began to develop more quickly, and by the time he began his junior season, Fischer was ready to be a part of the Warhawks’ run at a state title.

Germantown didn’t need a dominant Luke Fischer last season with seven seniors on the squad, including Zak Showalter, a coach’s son and a tough-as-nails point guard who now plies his trade for Ryan at Wisconsin.

“Last year, being the only junior (in the starting lineup), playing last year and having seniors all around me, I was more of a facilitator,” Fischer says. “Everyone could play the star role, and I just did my thing.”

That included Fischer at times. He was a post force on a team that in its division in Wisconsin had no equal. The Warhawks went through defending champions Madison Central in the semifinals, and they capped Fischer’s first undefeated season with a three-point win against the No. 2 team in the state, Milwaukee King.

Fischer finished with 19 points, five rebounds and four steals. According to news reports from the game, his physical presence and presence of mind were crucial against a King press that Steve Showalter later called “a beast” to deal with.

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The Indiana press corps is famous, perhaps notorious, for its religious devotion to recruiting coverage.

When Noah Vonleh’s Mass Rivals team played in the adidas Invitational, a large AAU tournament held in Indianapolis each July, the five-star forward found himself so in demand to the media that one reporter asked him if he’d ever given an interview to such a large group before. No, he did not think so, he said to awkward laughter.

So when Indiana offered Fischer after his sophomore season at Germantown, the rush of attention from recruiting reporters was predictable. Through that initial surge, the line from Fischer and his parents remained the same — he was in no rush to decide.

The general assumption was that it would only be a matter of time before Ryan tossed the Badgers into the fray. Wisconsin’s coach had, after all, made a living in Madison out of turning tough, technically skilled big men into all-Big Ten players around which he could build another business-as-usual 20-win team that played stifling defense and mind-numbingly methodical, patient offense.

Wisconsin never did step forward with an offer. Perhaps it intended to eventually, as Fischer expressed at least respectful interest in the in-state school.

However, the Badgers’ intentions were rendered moot on New Year’s Eve 2011.

That night, Fischer and his parents made the drive down to Bloomington, where they got to watch Indiana tally its second of three top-five victories that season against then-No. 2 Ohio State. Even without students in the stands because of winter break, Fischer and his family got a full frontal look at the kind of game-day atmosphere Indiana prides itself on.

By the time 2011 had become 2012, Fischer knew he had found his home.

“Coming down here, I kind of felt like it was going to be the right time,” Fischer said on the day of his commitment. “I just wanted to see what the game was gonna be like.”

After spending time postgame with Crean and his staff, Fischer had his mind made up.

“It just felt right,” he said then.

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Indiana fans, wowed by the instant impact of Cody Zeller and dazzled by the attention that rankings and ratings were bringing the Hoosiers’ 2012 recruiting class, were unsure of Fischer. Here, he again met some skepticism, perhaps as much because he represented the unknown as anything else.

Those around him, though, say the doubts and the questions surrounding Fischer quietly drove him to get better, illustrating another of those qualities Crean found so appealing.

“He’s one of those players — this is why I love him — nothing’s been given to him,” Crean says. “He has had to work his way up.”

Even after Mr. Basketball, after another state title and another undefeated season, Fischer is barely in the nation’s Top 150 in his class, and he isn’t considered the best player in Wisconsin’s senior class (that honor goes to Koenig, his AAU teammate last summer and Ryan’s next point guard at Wisconsin).

But none of that weighs so much on the opinion of Indiana fans anymore as first-hand experience.

Fischer’s Wisconsin Swing team came down to Indianapolis in late April of last year for the adidas Spring Classic. There, combining well with Koenig and a team full of excellent shooters (including Fuller, who began making a name for himself at that tournament), Fischer excelled, leading Swing past Eric Gordon All-Stars and fellow 2013 IU signee Devin Davis for a tournament title.

Over three days of action, Fischer excelled nearly everywhere on the floor. He showed off his improved athleticism and bounce, he acted as a central focus for Swing in the post, he displayed good defensive instincts and shot-blocking ability and shot nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line.

In a tournament quarterfinal win, he scored 32 points and supplemented them with 10 rebounds. He finished with 17 and 11 in the finals to secure that win over Davis’ EG10 squad. He was one of the outstanding players of the tournament, leading his team to a 5-0 record.

The weekend let Fischer feel the full force of Indiana’s fanbase. He and his family visited Bloomington on the night before the start of the tournament, and Crean cracked a smile when he realized they didn’t expect the kind of fan turnout that usually follows IU commitments on the local grassroots scene.

“The tournament that we had in Indy that summer was so cool,” Fischer says now, “seeing all the fans come out.”

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More than eyes, Indiana fans began to train something more powerful on Fischer: comparisons. Specifically, the constant comparison to Zeller carried the heaviest burden.

Such a parallel is wholly unfair on anyone, surely, considering Zeller’s outstanding impact on the court from the start of his career. That it comes up at all is a testament to just how sold Indiana fans now are on Fischer.

While it’s impossible to expect such a talented, college-ready player out of anyone as IU got with Zeller, it’s not unfair to point out that Fischer’s career has followed a similar developmental arc.

Physically, he has begun to find the upper-body strength to go with what volleyball built on his legs, making him a tougher post player at both ends of the floor.

“I’ve been able to finish through contact,” Fischer says of his improvement as a senior. “I’ve been able to deal with guys pushing and shoving me all game long in the post.”

He’s also pushed further up the wall, closer to 6-foot-11 now than his listed 6-foot-9 when he committed to IU. And as he has put in more time in the gym, Fischer has polished off a face-up game and jump shot that ought to be more than just a lip-service tool in his offensive game in college.

Crean, though, is not a big fan of comparisons, particularly between current and future players. He respects the similarities in the environments that nurtured both Indiana’s current No. 40 and its future No. 40 (Fischer has worn Zeller’s number throughout his prep career), but he isn’t interested in making Fischer’s career simply an extension of Zeller’s.

“He’s extremely skilled,” Crean says of Fischer. “Not going the Cody way, but they’re both outstanding human beings and well-raised young men and well coached, so when you put those attributes together, those are good comparisons.

“But just like Cody’s come in and been his own player, when Luke comes in, he’ll be his own player, too.”

Maybe that process has already started.

In a 20-point semifinal win March 8 over Oshkosh North, with Crean and his staff watching via an online stream of the game, Fischer posted 32 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. It was a performance indicative of Fischer’s dominance this season in Wisconsin’s Division I, and his averages would likely be higher if Germantown hadn’t benched him for so many fourth quarters (the Warhawks won 21 of their 26 games by more than 20 points).

Word leaked out the same evening that Fischer would be named Mr. Basketball the next day, but with work left to do, he says he “wasn’t thinking of that at all.”

This year, though, did feel different for Fischer, who had to step into a major leadership void left by those seven seniors and provide the same consistent, unwavering on-court guidance they had for him as a junior.

“This year, being kind of the guy on the team and knowing that this is it for me, it’s now or never,” Fischer says. “I had to talk more whenever we were on the court. Even off the court, too, I had to bring everyone together kind of. And then also playing, I had to be the guy who made the big basket when we needed one.”

Litscher saw that new quality in his star big man. Leadership and communication skills came surprisingly smoothly, he says, for an only child.

This is the natural evolution, Litscher says, of Luke Fischer.

Regardless of the easy dominance his size can provide. Whether production surrounds him or he is looked upon to provide it. Whether his jersey reads “Germantown” or “Wisconsin Swing.” Whether he is committed or still looking for a college to call home, Fischer never misses a step in his development.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids in the state, I’ve seen a lot of kids I’ve coached, and I don’t know if any of them have gotten better every time I’ve seen them,” Litscher says. “He’s gonna just continue to get stronger. I really think people are gonna be surprised. Coach Crean, Coach Buckley knew what they were doing. I think they saw that potential there.”

So rankings be damned, and perceptions too, according to the coaches who know Fischer best, and the ones with enough confidence to offer him more quickly than normal. He might not be a top-100 prospect. He might not carry the distinction of being the best player in Wisconsin (although he’ll always have Mr. Basketball). Crean certainly doesn’t see him as the next Cody Zeller.

Luke Fischer, his coaches say, isn’t wrapped up in attention. All that matters is improvement, consistent and measured, and success, team before individual, the first understood as likely to lead to the second.

Unassuming but supremely talented, Luke Fischer has quietly risen above the field time and again, and his future coach is confident the same timeline will play out once he arrives in Bloomington.

“He responds. He gets better. And he’s not had all the ‘get invited to this camp’ and ‘get invited to that camp’ and had all those things bestowed upon him,” Crean says. “He’s one of those guys, when it’s all said and done, the rankings, no matter how far they climb, are never going to do justice to how good he’s going to be if he comes in here and keeps that same mindset that he’s had growing up.”

This article originally ran in Volume 22, Issue 9 of Inside Indiana Magazine. To subscribe, call 800-524-9527.

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