Although on paper it may appear that James Johnson
is having a similar season to his freshman campaign, when digging deeper into his performance, that initial impression couldnt be any further from the truth.
The leading scorer on a bad team that went 17-13 last season, Johnson is now the #2 option on one of the best teams in college basketball. While his scoring rate is slightly down, Johnsons field goal percentage has climbed from 48.7 to 54%, as hes taking less 3-pointers and doing a much better job scoring inside the arc. His role is smaller this year but hes contributing much more with his all-around game, doubling his assists while cutting down on his turnovers, and being far more solid on the defensive end. Considering the many different ways in which he helps his team, it wouldnt be a stretch to call Johnson one of the most versatile players in the country these days.
Offensively, Johnson has shown flashes of a complete repertoire this season. His ball-handling skills look much improved, as you regularly see him grabbing rebounds and taking the ball smoothly coast to coast, and hes become quite a lethal threat creating his own shot in the half-court as well. Johnson has very unique timing on his drives as discussed in the past (see prior reports), and hes just as effective creating and finishing with his left hand as he is with his natural rightsomething that is pretty rare at the collegiate level at his size.
Johnsons ability to face-up and attack his man off the dribble makes him a terrific mismatch threat on the perimeter, and watching him utilize his outstanding footwork and pivot moves in the post, its hard not to come away impressed with his scoring and overall basketball instincts. He has great hands and outstanding touch with either hand around the basket, sometimes flicking up pretty floaters around the rim, and looks very comfortable at times operating with his back to the basket as well.
Although his 3-point shot has not fallen at a very good rate (hes just 17/57, or 30%), Johnsons mid-range pull-up jumper has become a very effective weapon this season, particularly off one dribble after getting his defender in the air with a pump-fake. On the catch and shoot, despite showing nice mechanics, Johnson has often appeared rushed. He still needs to work on his range it appears, as well as his free throw shootingwhere he hits just 70%.
While Johnson can score in a wide variety of ways, he is also a fairly solid passer as well. He sees the floor well and regularly makes heady passes right into the post for easy baskets, clearly possessing an advanced feel for the game. Johnsons knack for making plays around the ball also extends to the offensive glass, where he is not quite as prolific as he was last season, but is still pretty adept.
Johnsons biggest issue right now might be the lack of focus he shows at timesmaking some poor decisions at times with the ball, but also making costly fundamental mistakes as well. He tries to do too much from the perimeter on a few possessions every game, over-handling the ball, being somewhat turnover prone, and settling for bad shots. He isnt as solid as youd hope either, forgetting to box out his man in crucial moments, being late to rotate defensively, and generally being inconsistent from game to game and often possession to possession. Johnson seems like the kind of guy who needs special attention from the coaching staff to make sure theyre getting (and will get) 100% out of him at all times, although this could be something that improves with added maturity.
Defensively, Johnson is a mixed bag, but seems to be much improved from last season, partially due to his much improved physique. He puts a pretty solid effort in on this end of the floor, doing a good job trying to stay in front of his man on the perimeter, utilizing his height and length very effectively, and being especially impressive recovering into the paint after being beatsometimes coming up with a rejection in the process. Johnson is a real stat-stuffer, getting plenty of blocks, steals and reboundsa product of his increased activity level this season, as well as his natural timing and instinctswhich are superb. Youll still see him losing his focus on this end at times, for instance not fighting through a screen or getting caught flat-footed while a smaller player blows by himhis lateral quickness is average as mentioned in the pastbut he seems to be getting better in this area, and should continue to improve as his career moves on.
All in all, Johnson is one of the more unique prospects in this draftwhile not a prototypical small forward, hes got more than enough tools to get by on the perimeter, and he can hurt the opposition quite a bit in his own right. It will be interesting to see where teams have Johnson rated on their board, as wont fit in on quite any team, but should be able to carve out a solid niche. Having turned 22 just a few weeks agodespite being a sophomorethe indications are that Johnson is likely to declare for this upcoming draft, particularly if he has a strong showing in the NCAA tournament.