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11/07/2022
<p>Xavier Johnson defending against Illinois last season. (HN photo/Eden Snower)</p>
Xavier Johnson defending against Illinois last season. (HN photo/Eden Snower)

Indiana Basketball Player Analysis: Will IU need Xavier Johnson's game to change this season?

The fifth-year senior is looking to improve in his second year with the Hoosiers

Despite Trayce Jackson-Davis being Indiana’s star in 2021-22, the team often went as point guard Xavier Johnson went. Johnson's play as the lead ball handler dictated much of what the Hoosiers did last season.

The Pittsburgh transfer scored 12.1 points per game on 52.6% true shooting in his first year in Bloomington. Let’s take a look at Johnson’s peculiar playstyle.

WHAT JOHNSON DOES WELL

Rim pressure

Johnson is an outstanding downhill threat with the basketball in his hands. He was Indiana’s best and most consistent attacking guard last year. 

Johnson uses his elite quickness and strength to will himself into the paint. His touch can be a little inconsistent, but his ability to bend defenses with drives is phenomenal.

Look no further than free-throw attempts to prove how hard it is to contain Johnson going full speed. Johnson took 4.3 free throws per game in 2021-22. He had a 45.5% free-throw rate, which led all Big Ten point guards (and is actually below his career average of 48%). Johnson made 78.2% of his foul shots, so his ability to draw fouls due to drives became a good source of offense for the Hoosiers.

Indiana is hoping to add freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino and a fully-healthy Trey Galloway as rim-pressure threats to go with Johnson this season. While the Hoosiers will undoubtedly want others to emerge as dynamic drivers, they can rest easy knowing Johnson provides that explosiveness as a point guard.

Point-of-attack defense

Defending pick-and-roll guards is vital with the excess of ball screens in basketball today. What Johnson did as a screen navigator and disrupter in this role was impressive.

Johnson’s tremendous defense of other point guards was part of what made IU’s defense successful last season. He is a crucial returning piece to a team that has a strong defensive infrastructure. 

Johnson was also exceptional when guarding players one-on-one without ball screens. It was hard to get around him because of his agility. Ball handlers had an even tougher time powering through the 200-pound point guard.

Perimeter players simply didn’t have a fun time when guarded by Johnson last year. He is not a point guard that teams can expect to attack off the bounce. He is one of the best perimeter defenders returning to the Big Ten this season, and his defense will be huge in big games for the Hoosiers.

Playmaking

Because Johnson constantly handled the ball in 2021-22, Indiana relied on him to be a solid passer. He was often able to make something out of nothing to create quality shots for others.

This is where Johnson’s downhill play proves useful as well. Johnson’s attacks create gravity, which allows him the choice to shoot or distribute. He devours defenses with his ability to drive and assist.

Johnson also showed brilliance as a pick-and-roll passer last year. His experience was evident, as he displayed patience and poise as a decision-maker off ball screens. Johnson developed wonderful chemistry with Indiana’s big men throughout the year and it showed.

What Johnson does as a playmaker helps Indiana quite a bit. This year, he might play off the ball more, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can still hold this playmaking value. Indiana will still likely ask Johnson to break down defenses and make good passes in big moments this season.

WHAT JOHNSON CAN IMPROVE

Composure

Johnson has struggled with turnovers his entire career. Those issues remained in his first season in Bloomington, as he had an 18.8% turnover rate and gave the ball away 2.7 times a game.

Sometimes Johnson just finds himself playing too fast or trying to make a play that is entirely not there. This leads to turnovers and some bad shots that might as well be turnovers.

Plays like this infuriated IU fans at times. Johnson’s out-of-control plays would completely swing momentum against the Hoosiers at times. When handling the ball as much as Johnson, turnovers are bound to happen. But turnovers that are mainly unforced can’t happen that often with a point guard.

Outside of turnovers, Johnson damaged his overall shooting efficiency by forcing shots. It would benefit both Johnson and the Hoosiers if he exhibits more composure at certain moments. It’d be foolish to ask Johnson to stop being Johnson, but with more talent on the roster this season, maybe Johnson can be an altered, calmer version of himself.

In-between game

After a rocky start to the season, Johnson finished last year shooting 38.3% on 3s. We’ve already detailed how potent he was as a driver. The area where Johnson struggled to score the most was on mid-range shots. 

Johnson made a mere 41.5% of his 2s last year and a large part of that was his inability to make mid-range shots and runners. 

Most of these attempts were clean looks that Johnson couldn’t convert. Hitting these shots would add more nuance to Johnson’s game.

For many players, I’d suggest completely eliminating these looks from their shot diet. Because Johnson is a primary ball handler, these attempts are needed to keep defenses honest. The only better alternative would be for Johnson to take more pull-up 3s, but his long ball isn’t at the level for that to be a viable option. 

If Johnson can become a threat to score from all three levels of the court, the game will open up for him. An improved touch in the intermediate game could be the missing piece for Johnson to take another step in his final season.

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM JOHNSON IN 2022-23

Expect to see loads of energy and athleticism again from Johnson this season. The ferocity of Johnson’s drives isn’t going anywhere, nor is his stout point-of-attack defense. With Hood-Schifino, another ball-handling guard joining IU's starting lineup this season, it will be fascinating to see how (or if) Johnson's role evolves this year.

While he may need to adjust a tad bit, Johnson will be at his best in 2022-23 if he can play a composed brand of basketball while letting his strengths shine naturally.

Check out all seven preseason deep dives here.


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