BLOOMINGTON, IN - FEBRUARY 15, 2022 - guard Xavier Johnson #0 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Andrew Mascharka/Indiana Athletics

Indiana trying to get Xavier Johnson comfortable in a new role

After Indiana walk-on forward Nate Childress soared through the lane for a dunk in the closing minutes of a dominant exhibition win over St. Francis Thursday evening, starting fifth-year guard Xavier Johnson’s knees buckled, and then he fell flat on his back.  Literally.

Don’t worry, Johnson was fine.

But with one minute left and IU up by 48 points, that moment told you something about the Virginia product who transferred to Indiana a year ago.

It seems Johnson only knows how to do things one way — he’s all in — in this case celebrating to the extreme for his teammate’s emphatic slam.

Indiana rode the wave of all-in highs and lows with Johnson a year ago, and his late play in the 2021-22 campaign was a pivotal part of the Hoosiers’ run to the NCAA Tournament.  He averaged 14.2 points, 5.9 assists and shot 41.4 percent from long distance in the final 17 games.

By and large, when Johnson was right, Indiana was right.

“When he’s on board and he’s ready, we’re a tough team to beat,” senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said at IU’s media day.

But of course there’s another side to Johnson — both on and off the court.

He had his share of struggles during the first half of the 2021-22 season, including a 4-of-16 clunker at Wisconsin, and a 3-of-11 performance against Notre Dame that drew boos from Indiana fans.

The all-in side of Johnson led to off court issues during the offseason, when he drove his car 90 miles per hour on a city street in Bloomington, and then attempted to fool police into believing he wasn’t driving the car.

Johnson said he changed his whole mindset to achieve his late success a season ago, and he’ll have to do it again this year as a new set of dynamics will test the fiery point guard.

Last season Indiana lived and died with the ball in Johnson’s hands at all times, but this year he’s starting alongside a second primary ball-handler, freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino, who appears to be more than just ready for this level of the game.

It took half a season and a change in playing style to get Johnson going a year ago, as he learned to read defenses better, and Indiana found he excelled in the pick-and-roll.

But the ask of Johnson is completely different this year.  He’ll be playing off the ball as much as he’s on it, a role he hasn’t had throughout his college basketball career.  If the early returns are any indication, there will be another learning curve.

At IU’s media day Johnson expressed enthusiasm about playing off the ball and perhaps shooting a bit more often.  But through the two exhibition games the 6-foot-3 Johnson is just 5-of-19 from the field, including 0-of-7 from three, and he had five turnovers in those contests against NAIA-level competition.

Johnson is still a point guard.  He’ll bring the ball up at times, but now there is no set in stone rule that he has to be at the top of the offense.

And with a more talented team than a year ago, his head coach is asking for less from a player who seemingly only knows how to give more.  After noticing Johnson’s struggles through the two exhibition games, Woodson sought him out to help him understand his new role.

“I told Xavier after the (St. Francis) game, you don’t have to do it all this year,” Woodson said.  “You really don’t. I think we’ve got enough pieces on this team that you can just do your part and not have to stress out about thinking you have to do everything.”

Johnson was effective scoring at the rim (54 percent) and on 3-pointers (38 percent) a year ago.  But with defenses stuck to shooters and Trayce Jackson-Davis, he often was put in positions where he had to “do it all.”  That often led to his weakness a year ago, when he shot 28 percent on 2-pointers away from the rim.

It also feels fair to ask, does Johnson know how to function on a team that doesn’t need him to do it all? He’s been running the show as a starting point guard since the day he stepped on campus at Pitt in 2018, a freshman year that saw him play 31 minutes and average 15 points.  Moreover, based on Woodson’s comment about Johnson stressing, does Indiana believe they can manifest even more efficiency and effectiveness from him this season via a more precise, less “stressful” role?  There is a certainly a lot of talent and athleticism there to work with.

While Woodson is asking less, he knows what his point guard is capable of.  And he knows there will be nights when Johnson takes over, like his back-to-back 24 point efforts against Minnesota and Maryland in must-win February games last season, or the 18 point, 12 assist gem he produced at Purdue.

“There’s going to be nights X is going to really, really explode offensively and have big games, and there’s going to be nights that might not happen. But he’s still got to be Xavier Johnson for us. He’s still got to defend. He’s still got to get the ball where it’s got to go and set us up, break press defenses and things of that nature.”

Woodson did a masterful job last year of helping Johnson navigate the rough patches, keeping him locked in, and ultimately elevating his level of play significantly down the stretch.

This time around, the challenge might be greater.

Mr. all-in needs to go out of character, dial things back, and do less.

“I’ve just got to slow him down and get him in a good frame of mind,” Woodson said.

Woodson took away Johnson’s car keys to slow him down on the roads.  Now he’s taken away the keys to the offense, at least in some respects.

Getting Johnson to slow down in any setting is no easy task.  Neither is asking him to take on an entirely new role.

And how Woodson makes this work will be one of the more interesting stories to watch this season.


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