With Indiana’s offseason roster changes behind us, we bring back our annual tradition of taking a closer look at the players expected to return to the program.
Next up is point guard Xavier Johnson, who is training for his fifth year of college basketball and second with IU.
THE 2021-22 NUMBERS
After transferring to IU from Pittsburgh, Johnson started all 34 games he played in during the 2021-22 season.
The Virginia product finished second on the team averaging 12.1 points, and led the team in assists (172, 5.1 per game) and steals (40, 1.2 per game). He was also second on the team in 3-point shooting (38.3%), shot 78.2% from the line, and was second in free throws made with 115.
The 6-foot-3 Johnson was named Honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media. His assist total was the fifth most in a season in program history, and his season per game average the eighth best ever.
WHAT WENT WELL
Down the stretch Johnson was the best point guard in the Big Ten, making major strides and showing that he was coachable in the process.
He averaged 14.2 points, 5.9 assists and shot 41.4 percent from long distance in the final 17 games of the season, and he was even better than those numbers in the last five of the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament. Indiana’s late season push to the NCAA Tournament simply doesn’t happen without his high-level finish.
Johnson brought a lot of long-missing qualities to the point guard position including elite quickness and an ability to finish at the rim, he got to the line and made free throws, and Johnson was a very good defender at the top of the defense. He also had the best turnover rate of his career, nearly three percentage points better than any of his first three seasons.
While his shot mechanics are unconventional, Johnson was exactly the kind of shooter IU needed from the point guard position down the stretch, making open shots when the defense collapsed. And as a perimeter shooter he learned to not force things over the course of the year.
OFFSEASON DEVELOPMENTAL NEEDS
1. Keep the emotions in check. The Xavier Johnson experience is like a thrill ride that you can’t get off. One minute it is exhilarating, the next frightening, and you never know what is coming around the next turn. In some respects, it is that very nature that makes Johnson so effective. But late in the season Mike Woodson said “I’m trying to get him to play non-reckless,” and it was when Johnson dialed things back just a hair and found his teammates more, that everything started clicking.
Of course there was more with Johnson than just on the court. His offseason incident behind the wheel is well documented, he was one of the suspended “Northwestern five,” and Johnson seems to find his way into heated on the court moments, like late game at Ohio State and at home against Rutgers.
It’s all a very fine line with Johnson, but he’ll be doing his team and his professional future a big favor if he can stay out of the unfavorable spotlight.
2. Scoring on the move, away from the basket. Johnson surprised on the upside with his 38.3 percent conversion rate from deep, more than three percentage points better than his previous career-best season. But Johnson only made 14 3-pointers all season that were not assisted, and he shot just 28 percent on 2-pointers away from the rim. Combined in those two figures is a player who struggled to score off the bounce if you could keep him away from the rim (where he made 54 percent of his shots). Wisconsin game-planned Johnson better than anyone, forcing him into a 2-of-17 shooting from the mid-range in two games. He struggled against Illinois in the same way.
The hope is much of this is moot with Johnson’s improvement over the season. But no doubt teams will look to run Johnson off of 3-point catch-and-shoot opportunities while keeping him away from the rim. Johnson has NBA-level aspects to both his game and athletic ability, but this is clearly one area that would hold him back if he doesn’t develop.
3. Stay out of foul trouble. In nine games last year Johnson had four or more fouls. He fouled out twice and spent multiple first halves sitting next to Woodson with two early fouls. This is where we plug in the cliché “the best ability is availability.” Johnson’s aggressive style leads to more fouls, and you wouldn’t want to completely eliminate that aspect of his game. But there are techniques to avoiding fouls, and it was typically Johnson’s overly-active hands that got him in trouble.
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE IN 2022-23
Let’s face it, late season Xavier Johnson is now the standard. If he plays like he did down the stretch in 2021-22, Johnson is probably first or second team All-Big Ten, and he’ll likely propel a couple of his teammates to some level of All-Big Ten stature as well. That’s the whole key with Johnson, playing at a high-level while raising the play of his teammates along the way.
If Johnson can sustain last year’s production over his final 17 games while staying out of trouble both on and off the court, his final season of college basketball will be a major success.
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