Tuesday, July 18, 2017 | 2 a.m.
If Jordan Johnson isn’t a natural point guard, he sure knows how to act the part.
The last time he played college basketball, he finished second in the NCAA in assists, as he averaged 8.1 per game for Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2015-16. Now, after transferring to UNLV and sitting out a redshirt season, the fifth-year senior will take the reins for the Rebels and run the point for a team poised to jump from last place to Mountain West contention.
Teammates and coaches rave about Johnson’s intelligence and feel for the game and hold him up as the template for a “true” point guard. You’d almost think he was born to play the position.
Not so, says Johnson.
“I always wanted to shoot,” he says with a smile, finally coming clean. “But my AAU coach said ‘We want you to be a point guard.’ I think I was 13 at the time, and ever since then I just took on that role.”
Johnson stands just 5-foot-9 now, so it’s understandable why that AAU coach wanted the 13-year-old version to focus on distributing the ball. But that didn’t make it easy for Johnson to accept.
“Everybody wants to score,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to learn to appreciate [passing]. At first, you always want to score because the people that score get all the glory. No one sees the person that made the pass.”
Despite his initial hesitation, Johnson proved to be a quick learner. He averaged 15.5 points and 5.0 assists per games as a high school senior in Waukegan, Illinois and drew Division I interest before enrolling at John Wood CC (Quincy, Ill.).
Current UNLV assistant Rob Jeter was one of those interested parties. Then the head coach at Milwaukee, he recognized Johnson’s burgeoning point guard skills and started heavily recruiting the young playmaker.
“Being pretty close to Waukegan, I knew about him coming out of high school,” Jeter says. “When we found out he was going to have to go to junior college, we went down and tracked him from his first year there. I fell in love with him.”
Johnson averaged 15.3 points and 6.1 assists as a sophomore and then joined Jeter at Milwaukee. Jeter put Johnson in charge of the Panthers’ offense immediately, showing complete trust in his point guard.
Johnson appreciated his coach’s genuine approach, and the two grew close during the season, with Johnson essentially coming to serve as an extension of Jeter on the floor.
“Coach Jeter, he was like my dad,” Johnson says. “He was always there for me. We talk about everything. He recruited me [to Milwaukee], and he helped me out a lot. That’s why we’re so close.”
Johnson rewarded Jeter with a spectacular 2015-16 season, posting 12.5 points and 8.1 assists per game. Under Jeter’s tutelage, Johnson had fulfilled his promise by becoming one of the best distributors in the nation.
Despite Johnson’s play, however, Milwaukee went 20-13 on the season (10-8 in the Horizon League) and Jeter was fired. Johnson decided to transfer, and because of his strong personal connection to Jeter, he had no doubt where he wanted to end up after Jeter was hired by Marvin Menzies as an assistant at UNLV.
But before he could pack his bags for Las Vegas, Johnson first had to pass an audition.
“I had to do some convincing on this end that he could play for us at UNLV at this level,” Jeter says. “Coming from Milwaukee is a little bit of a jump up, so coach Marvin watched some film and watched him play and that kind of convinced him that Jordan could help us.”
Jeter had stumped for his point guard, but in the end, Menzies didn’t really need to be persuaded all that much.
“[Jeter’s recommendation] was valuable,” Menzies says, “but I think watching film of Jordy and getting online and watching some of his games, he really sold himself.”
Once the game tape proved to the coaches that he was worthy of a scholarship, Johnson spent the next year assuring himself that he belonged at UNLV. He was forced to sit out the 2016-17 season as a redshirt, and watching from the bench while the team struggled left him in pain.
Johnson was used to orchestrating every aspect of his teams, and being relegated to the sideline left him feeling powerless to the point where he began to question his decision.
“Last year was real hard,” Johnson says. “Sometimes I wanted to go back home. Like every day, I’m like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t sit out. I’m ready to go back.’
“But I stuck it out. As the season goes on, you get comfortable and you start working out harder and eventually you work out more than the team does. It got easier for me. Coach Jeter was there for me, coach Marv was, [men’s basketball director of operations] Preston [Laird] was, and I can always talk to Kris [Clyburn] and Jojo [Mooring]. I got through it and now I’m ready to play.”
Johnson should make a world of difference for the Rebels when he finally steps on the court this season. UNLV’s offensive attack was among the worst in the country last year, finishing 287th out of 351 teams in KenPom.com’s adjusted offense rankings, and the advanced metrics tell an even more gruesome story.
The Rebels averaged just 0.832 points per possession last season, which ranked 322nd in the nation. The team managed just 0.798 PPP in halfcourt situations and 1.010 PPP in transition, with both marks placing UNLV among the country’s least effective offenses.
But when Johnson was at the helm of Milwaukee’s offense in 2015-16, the Panthers were an elite scoring unit. They finished 16th in the nation in points per possession (0.999) and posted much more efficient marks in halfcourt (0.975 points per possession) and transition (1.185 points per possession) situations.
Johnson was especially dazzling running the pick-and-roll. It’s a play that is supposed to be a point guard’s best friend, but UNLV ball-handlers squeezed just 0.706 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll last year, which was 262nd in the country. In Johnson’s last season at Milwaukee, he ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, averaging 0.909 point per possession on such plays.
That’s why the UNLV coaching staff seems eager to put the ball in Johnson’s hands as soon as possible.
“He’s very fast with the ball, and north-south he can really cover a lot of ground,” Jeter says. “That’s going to be important for us, to attack downhill. He likes to play downhill and he can hit that pass, delivering assists and making sure teammates can catch the ball in the right situations. He’s going to make all the other players around him better.”
In the end, that will be Johnson’s job description this year. Like a true point guard, he won’t be judged by his stats, but by his ability to make his teammates better while leading UNLV to wins in his one and only season in Las Vegas.
Menzies thinks Johnson is prepared to do just that.
“We want to run and play a certain style of basketball, and inevitably the point guard’s job is to help us win games,” Menzies says. “Sometimes that means you’re going to be hit with different things by the other team that can throw you off, or shots may not be falling, so you’ve got to get guys the right shot at the right time. He’s got a lot to manage.”
Johnson believes the Rebels are capable of a quick turnaround. He’s excited about the infusion of talented recruits and says if the team comes together as a family over the summer, they’ll be able to compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
And he knows just how to achieve such hardwood harmony.
“I love passing,” Johnson says. “My teammates shoot — I’ll just pass. I love to see my teammates score. When you start passing, it makes everybody happy and it brings everybody close, because they know if they pass the ball, I’m going to pass it back. They don’t have to worry about not getting the ball back. That’s how you want to play. That’s what I do.”
Johnson sounds so much like a true point guard as he lays out his plan, you’d almost think he was a natural.