Florida State fans were in for a big surprise when their preseason games kicked off. Gone was their chubby, indecisive, nearsighted and often banged up starting center from a year ago. And in his place they got an extremely quick and strong beast with the body and hops reminiscent of Kenyon Martin
Johnson went into the offseason thinking of transferring to another school, but came back into the fall semester with a completely new body, a wide arsenal of all-around skills and more dedication to the game of basketball than hes ever shown before. Johnson shed 30 pounds, finally took care of his extremely poor eyesight by getting contact lenses, and hooked up with one of the top trainers in the country in David Thorpe at the 5-Star pro training center in Clearwater, Florida, which took his game and mental frame of mind to a completely different level. As you have read on DraftExpress over the past few years, Thorpes alumni include under the radar college sleepers-turned solid NBA pros such as Udonis Haslem
, Kevin Martin
and Orien Greene
. This is one of the reasons Johnson is viewed as an intriguing prospect, as Thorpes students are far and few between and the fact that he will be training at such a well respected gym helps his stock almost right off the bat. Johnson would have to back it up himself, though, since these things dont mean anything until he starts showing it in a real game. Thats exactly what has started to happen in the 2nd half of the season in Tallahassee.
The fact that hes finally started to show his talent shouldnt as much of a surprise to those familiar with his career, though. Johnson was a top-30 prospect coming out of high school and a borderline McDonalds All-American. He initially committed to Georgia, just a few hours from his home in Albany, but academic issues forced him to spend a year in prep-school first. Eventually landing as at Florida State, he showed outstanding potential initially and looked to be on his way to cashing in on a first round contract, finishing 3rd in the voting for ACC freshman of the year after two top-10 lottery picks in Luol Deng
and Chris Paul
. His sophomore year did not go according to plan, suffering from a severe hamstring injury that hampered him for much of the way, gaining plenty of weight and playing extremely tentatively as if he was afraid to do anything that would risk getting injured again. Physically he was not the same, but it was mentally that Johnson struggled the most.
Despite the rumors of a new and vastly improved Johnson
coming in the preseason, his junior year initially started off much like his sophomore year did, but for completely different reasons this time. Florida States extremely athletic guards could not or would not find a way to utilize the talent they had inside the post, and Johnson had trouble figuring out how to take advantage of his vastly improved frame.
A mediocre outing at Clemson eleven games into the season was when Johnson bottomed out, shooting 4-10 from the field, picking up 4 fouls and failing to pick up even one rebound in 30 minutes in a nail biting loss. Since then the light-bulb appears to have come on and weve seen a player intent on showing everyone that he is one of the top big men in the ACC after Shelden Williams
. Behind a new offense that looks to get Johnson involved early and often and 5 double-doubles in his last 7 games, Florida State has landed a spot right back on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Thats only part of the reason why Johnsons name is starting to pick up some serious buzz, though. Standing 6-9 and with a frame and the type of athleticism that most college players can only dream of, he shows most of the all-around attributes and skills you want to see in an NBA power forward--potentially at the very least.
Johnsons athleticism was never in question even when he was 255 pounds rather than the much more compact 225 hes today. His feet are extremely nimble, his vertical leap is off the charts (somewhere in the 40 area), and he gets off his feet as quickly as any big man in the country, often to pull down monster rebounds well out of his area. He has some very nice basic post moves, including a sweet jump-hook shot that is almost impossible to stop when he gets the ball in the post. He does a good job establishing deep position in the paint, but doesnt see a ton of one on one situations in the paint as he doesnt have a true playmaker or post entry passer on the team. When he does get the ball, his explosiveness and aggressive demeanor make him a magnet for drawing fouls.
He can also step outside and knock down the jump-shot outside to 18 feet, displaying nice elevation and a sweet stroke in the process, or even beyond that at times as hes shown knocking down eight 3-pointers this year. In the high post, he had a good feel for making unselfish passes, rifling in rocket passes the way he only hope would be returned to him next time down the floor.
In terms of weaknesses, Johnson still isnt an extremely polished player in any facet of the game besides rebounding. He can be a bit passive at times, floating in and out of the game and not maintaining his focus at all times, being a bit tentative in his decision making and struggling to stay out of foul trouble. Hes clearly still getting used to his new dimensions as a player both in terms of his physical attributes as well as the skills he picked up over the summer, and doesnt quite know how to fully utilize them at this point in his career.
Defensively he doesnt quite have the height or the length to be an amazing shot-blocking presence, but this is not really an area he can afford to show too much in considering the way his team likes to front the post as well as his tendency to pick up cheap fouls. The clinic for footwork and quickness he put on Tyler Hansbrough
in the UNC game a few Sundays ago, fronting and denying him any touches altogether in the last 10 minutes of the game should have been well noted by NBA scouts. He was well on his way to a career best game on the road at Duke two weeks later, giving Shelden Williams
all he could handle with 13 points and 11 rebounds in his 14 minutes on the floor, but was shot down by the overzealous ACC refs who called one of the worst technical fouls weve seen all year (all 3 refs were eventually suspended by the ACC for the call), sending Johnson packing to the bench after the double foul.
Johnson has continued that excellent momentum over the past 9 games, scoring in double figures every time out, averaging nearly 10 rebounds per game, and shooting 80% from the line. As his stock has risen in the eyes of scouts, questions have arisen regarding his intents about the draft this year. Turning 23 just a few weeks ago, he isn't getting any younger any time soon. Right now he appears to be 50/50 on whether to declare or not, mostly depending on how he finishes up the season. If Johnson can find a way to lead FSU to the NCAA tournament and his stock continues to rise, he will certainly test the waters and go workout for 5-7 teams drafting in the mid-late 1st round. If the feedback is lukewarm, it appears that he will return to school.