Indiana should take on a whole new look at the point guard spot when the season tips on Nov. 9, and one of the main reasons why is their depth at the position.
Since Yogi Ferrell played his last game in 2016, the Hoosiers haven’t had an elite primary ball-handler, and they certainly haven’t had depth at the one spot. And it is probably no coincidence that they haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament since then either.
Head coach Mike Woodson wants to play up-tempo on offense, and he wants to put pressure on the ball on defense. As the initiators on both ends, he knows that his point guards can make or break much of what he wants to accomplish in his first season leading the program.
“The point guard position I’ve always said is the toughest position on the floor,” Woodson said earlier this month at the Big Ten media day. “From a coaching standpoint we ask them to do a lot. I’m demanding when it comes to that, so I expect them to run our ball club. I expect them to defend and get the ball where it’s got to go.”
In Woodson’s own career at IU he saw first hand how a point guard can change the game. His lone Big Ten title as a player came in his senior year in 1980 when the Hoosiers had a talented freshman running the show named Isiah Thomas. While he may not have a future NBA Hall of Famer leading the way this year, Woodson knows he has a potential game-changer in Pitt transfer Xavier Johnson.
What makes Johnson unique?
“He changes the game with his speed,” Woodson said.
Each and every year at this time former coach Archie Miller talked about wanting to play up-tempo, but by the time the high-major competition appeared on the schedule, the Hoosiers became very much a half-court oriented offense. They never finished inside the top-200 in KenPom adjusted tempo during his four-year span as coach.
When Woodson says Johnson changes the game with his speed, he means his fourth-year point guard can push the pace where others can’t or won’t. Johnson has an attacking mindset that is a prerequisite for up-tempo basketball, and his motor is seemingly always switched on to max-speed whether in transition or the half court.
Johnson’s speed is a variable that is difficult to gameplan for and it can be a real weapon for Indiana this year. Cheap transition baskets before the defense is set often make the difference in an otherwise congested and physical Big Ten half court. But like most with the physical gifts and mental toughness to always play fast and attack, there can be tradeoffs.
The 6-foot-3 Johnson had a top-50 assist rate in each of his three years at Pitt, but he also had a turnover rate north of 23 percent in each of those campaigns. By comparison Rob Phinisee’s turnover rate last year was just 15.8 percent. Johnson has often struggled at times with his shot selection on the move, although that is something he improved. He’s made just 43.1 percent of his two-point shots over his career but converted at a career-best 50 percent in 2020-21.
Woodson hopes this is the year Johnson puts it all together and leads the team with controlled chaos.
“He can make shots. He can get in the paint and create,” Woodson said. “I’m just trying to get him to be a better point guard and involve his teammates in terms of running our offense. There’s no doubt he’s got to be good on the defensive end because I think that’s where we’ll be a better team if our team is defending on a high level. That will put us in position to win ball games.”
Johnson drew the start in both games in The Bahamas, but there was not a major drop-off when Phinisee entered the game for him. Woodson talked about why Johnson earned the starting job, at least in the preseason.
“He’s (Johnson) had more experience, Rob has been a little up and down here in the program,” Woodson said. “Xavier has at least ran Pitt as a point guard, so he has some experience and it showed early on when we started practicing. I thought he earned that right when we made the trip to The Bahamas.”
While Johnson seems to be locked in as the starter to open the season, he’s been around long enough to know nothing is set in stone. With both a three-year Big Ten starter in Phinisee, and former 5-star recruit in Khristian Lander pushing him, the competition won’t end when the season tips on Nov. 9.
If egos can be held in check, that three-way competition should prove to be highly valuable to the the team, with each player getting reps in practice against high-end talent. For Johnson, he’ll have to find the right balance between his unrelenting attacking mindset on the one hand, and efficiency and ball security on the other. He knows if he starts making too many mistakes his minutes could start to dissipate.
“We all (the point guards) know that we’re good, so it’s always next man up if you’re not playing well,” Johnson said.
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