Unlike the rest of UNLV’s incoming recruiting class, we won’t get to see Jordan Johnson play right away. The senior transfer from Wisconsin-Milwaukee has to sit out a redshirt year and won’t be able to play out his final season of eligibility until 2017-18, but it’s not too early to wonder whether he’ll be worth the wait for the Rebels.
It’s been years since UNLV has fielded a difference-maker at point guard, and that’s been one of the issues holding the team back as they’ve struggled to score in recent seasons. On paper, Johnson would seem to be a good fit, as he comes with a playmaking reputation after averaging 8.1 assists at Milwaukee last year (second-most in Division I). He also posted 12.5 points and just 2.8 turnovers per game (a 2.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), so the box score production is obvious.
Can Johnson’s style translate to UNLV when he gets on the court in 2017? After watching a handful of Milwaukee games from last season, I think there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic—at least on the offensive end.
First, and most importantly, Johnson is a true point guard. UNLV fans may be triggered by that phrase, but it fits in this case. I’ve covered the Rebels since the 2012-13 season, and in that time they’ve never had a player on the roster who was capable of running an offense as efficiently as Johnson. That’s especially evident on the pick-and-roll, a basic staple of halfcourt offense that UNLV shied away from under Dave Rice, mostly because the team didn’t have a point guard who knew how to milk scoring chances out it consistently.
Johnson can do that. Under former Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter (now a UNLV assistant), the Panthers put the ball in Johnson’s hands on the vast majority of halfcourt possessions, gave him a ball screen at the top of the key and let him create offense. Johnson has a good feel for the game, and once he comes off a pick he is able to use hesitation moves and changes of speed in order to get into the lane. And once he gets into the paint and draws the defense, he is an expert at finding the open man, no matter where they are on the court.
He’s good at manipulating the defense to create open shots under the basket:
Johnson is also exceptional at the drive-and-kick game, which is key in college basketball. Like a good point guard, he anticipates shooters coming open and is able to make passes that past Rebels couldn’t attempt, including cross-court skip passes that lead to open corner 3-pointers:
When defenders stick to shooters and allow him to penetrate freely into open space, he’s capable of scoring in the paint or at least drawing fouls. Using that hesitation move, he’s able to turn the corner pretty effectively:
But finishing is the weakest aspect of Johnson’s game, as he is not nearly as efficient when big men challenge him at the rim. He made just 52.8 percent of his shots near the rim last year, which would have been the second-worst mark on UNLV (ahead of only Jordan Cornish at 48.4 percent). Standing just 5-foot-9, Johnson is at a huge size disadvantage and struggles to finish in traffic. He understands this, of course. He doesn’t over-penetrate very often and usually leaves himself enough space to make a pass or get off a clean shot, but when he does find himself in the teeth of the defense, he has a hard time:
Johnson may struggle in traffic, but he’s electric when given open space. In the games I watched, some of his best plays came in transition, when he was able to use his speed and vision to break down defenses before they could get set. He excels at pushing the ball ahead quickly for scoring chances, whether he’s dribbling the length of the court for layups or throwing pinpoint outlet passes over the top. If the wings run the floor, Johnson will do what a good point guard does and get them easy baskets:
He’s also fundamentally sound. One area where the Rebels have struggled mightily in recent years is making entry passes—it may not sound like a big deal, but UNLV guards and wings haven’t been able to get the ball into the post on time and in rhythm, and it has cost the team points. Johnson has this basic aspect of the game down pat and he squeezes value out of it by feeding his big men. Righty, lefty, bounce passes, over-the-top lobs—he can make every entry pass and make it look easy:
Johnson biggest offensive weakness is shooting. He struggled from 3-point range last year (31.6 percent on 2.5 attempts per game) and shot just 42.8 percent overall, and that capped his value at the good-not-great level. If you look at his advanced stats, you’ll see that Johnson was fantastic at running the offense and making his teammates better—he led Milwaukee regulars in offensive rating (118.9), which measures how many points the team scores per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor—but his shooting made him an inefficient individual contributor, as he posted just 0.898 points per possession (eighth among Milwaukee regulars).
There is some hope—Johnson actually made 44.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot jump shots last year, good for 1.324 points per possession. That put him in elite territory in Division I. The problem comes when Johnson shoots off the dribble, as his accuracy drops to 23.1 percent and results in a paltry 0.558 points per possession. Johnson takes a lot of 3-pointers off the dribble, usually pulling up behind screens to launch long bombs. If Marvin Menzies and Jeter can coach him to abstain from pulling up off the dribble, his efficiency should receive a boost, because as the numbers show, Johnson is capable of shooting from deep when he’s open:
If Johnson can straighten out his outside shooting, he’ll be a nearly perfect offensive catalyst for UNLV. But offense is only one end of the court, unfortunately. At the other end, Johnson doesn’t make much of an impact at all. He’s not a terribly engaged defender, and he often gets caught flat-footed. He backs off opponents and concedes too much ground. He’s also much smaller than just about every player he’s tasked with guarding, and he gets pushed around a lot. That leads to him shying away from physical contact and allowing too many easy driving lanes:
His lack of physicality makes him a target for opponents. In the three games I watched, the opposing teams screened him relentlessly, making him fight through multiple ball screens on some possessions. Johnson simply isn’t strong enough to do that. He gets knocked off-stride (and sometimes completely off his feet) by picks with regularity. That leads to Johnson trailing the ball-handler around the screen, a habit which forced the Milwaukee big men to come out as far as the 3-point arc to pick up dribblers while Johnson scrambled to catch up to the play. The results were ugly:
Johnson’s short stature also hurts him when it comes to contesting shots. At 5-foot-9, he struggles to challenge jump shots, as taller players can pull up and shoot over him with ease. Opponents scored 1.188 points per possession on spot-up attempts when defended by Johnson, the worst mark on the Milwaukee squad and among the very worst in the country:
Johnson’s defensive issues are real. His size puts him at a big disadvantage when it comes to battling through screens, he’ll probably never bother a jump shooter the way a long-limbed defender like Patrick McCaw would, and he doesn’t make up for it by getting steals (0.9 per game) or forcing turnovers (13.3 percent forced turnover rate). A year from now when he gets on the court for UNLV, the coaches may get him to play harder and commit fewer mental lapses, but the physical limitations are always going to be there.
Menzies will most likely be willing to live with the sub-par defense, however, because of everything that Johnson can bring to the offense. He’s an expert tactician when it comes to running a halfcourt offense and finding open shooters, he’s opportunistic in transition, and even his outside shooting could improve with increased selectivity. He’s good at the little things, too, like entry passes and free throws. That’s the kind of guy a coach can trust with the ball in his hands, and I expect Menzies will feel the same way… in 2017. Expect Johnson to be running the show for the Rebels a year from now.
Kris Clyburn (May 26)
Uche Ofoegbu (May 29)
Zion Morgan (May 31)
Ben Coupet (June 5)
Jovan Mooring (June 8)
Cheickna Dembele (June 13)
Christian Jones (June 18)
Jordan Johnson (June 29)