Mike Woodson’s first win in the transfer portal is one of college basketball’s best facilitators. But when it comes to his new prize, Indiana’s new head coach will also be challenged.
Former Pittsburgh point guard Xavier Johnson announced on Wednesday afternoon that he is transferring to Indiana, and with that news Indiana has added an elite assist man. The 6-foot-3 Johnson was No. 4 in the country with a 42.4 assist rate according to KenPom.com. Assist rate is defined as assists divided by the field goals made by the player’s teammates while he is on the court, and Johnson was also the best in the ACC when it comes to that metric.
Johnson was averaging 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game in 18 contests (16 starts) for the Panthers when he entered the transfer portal on Feb. 24. He was shooting 42.6 percent (80-of-188) from the field, including 32.1 percent (25-of-78) from three-point range. Johnson concluded his Pitt career ranked 30th on the all-time scoring list with 1,152 points, and he arrives in Bloomington with two years of eligibility remaining.
Woodson is getting a player who arrives at IU ready to have the ball placed in his hands. Johnson was the keystone of the Pitt offense, with a usage rate that was No. 67 in the country and again, No. 1 in the ACC. Whether he passes, drives or shoots, Johnson is quite comfortable with initiating the offense.
While he is a great passer and strong off the bounce and finishing at the rim, Johnson is just a 33.6 percent career 3-point shooter on 277 attempts, and his conversion rate from behind the arc has declined each year. Johnson told The Daily Hoosier yesterday he’s open to tweaking his shot if Indiana coaches tell him it’s right to do so.
Part of Johnson’s high usage rate stems from turnovers. While his turnovers per game decreased each season, he was still averaging 3.3 turnovers per contest as a junior before hitting the portal. Johnson’s junior season turnover rate was 23 percent, a bit lower than his 24.6 and 24.2 rates for his sophomore and freshman seasons at Pittsburgh, respectively. The bottom line — Johnson plays extremely fast, and that is something that Indiana covets as it looks to play up-tempo under Woodson — but at times he is out of control.
You have to live and die with Johnson’s highs and lows. During his time at Pittsburgh, Johnson had 13 games with six or more turnovers, but he also had 14 games with eight or more assists.
Indiana fans can expect Johnson to be impactful at the other end of the floor as well. He was No. 11 in the ACC with a 2.9 percent steal rate in 2020-21, and No. 4 in 2019-20 at 3.5 percent.
Johnson is also successful at drawing fouls, with a fouls drawn per 40 minutes rate that ranked No. 5 in the ACC. And when he gets to the stripe Johnson converted at a 78.7 percent clip this season. But as it seems to go with Johnson, fouls have also been an issue.
At times Johnson’s aggressiveness on the defensive end led to problems. He committed 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes in ACC games this season, fouled out of three games, and he had four fouls in five other contests.
Part of Johnson’s struggle with fouling has been self-inflicted. Known for his fiery personality, Johnson can let his emotions get the best of him. At one point in February he had earned three technical fouls over a five game span.
“Nothing I’ve said has worked,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said to reporters of his talks with Johnson during that stretch in February. “We’ve been telling him for three years, two-and-a-half years now, ‘Stop talking to the refs. Stop being demonstrative.’ Nothing we’ve said has worked”
Capel’s frustration with Johnson seemed to play a role in the talented guard’s loss of his starting job for two games in February. Ultimately, Johnson’s decision to transfer was described as a mutual choice involving him and Capel.
Emotional, aggressive play has been missing from Indiana’s backcourt in recent years, as has high level and up-tempo facilitation of the offense. Johnson should bring all of that to IU right away. But Woodson will now also inherit the challenge of channeling Johnson’s passion and emotions in a way that is positive for his first IU team.
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