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Defending Xavier Johnson - Part 1

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot you can take away from the Pittsburgh Panthers (10-3) non-conference schedule. Perhaps the biggest one is the emergence of freshman point guard Xavier Johnson. His talent is undeniable, and it has many people predicting that he’ll one day play in the NBA.

That type of notion is one of the many reasons why Johnson is likely at the top of teams scouting reports. Don’t believe me, here’s why.

In my opinion, the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers provided the best look at how defenses may try to play Johnson going forward. Not only did subsequent teams try some of what West Virginia did, but the game is more current than the one against the Iowa Hawkeyes.

This years Mountaineers aren’t exactly press-Virginia, but they still are a physical team that doesn’t mind getting in your face. Pressing Johnson seems like a good idea, as he isn’t able to survey the court and it chews up the shot clock. Still, it will take a disciplined on-ball defender to guard him one-on-one, and that player likely can’t be a big part of a teams offensive game plan due to the energy they’ll be expending defending Johnson. It would likely have to be a defensive assignment by committee.

Johnson is special attacking the basket as he’s able to go to his left or right with consistent results. He’s still a right-handed finisher for the most part, but his ability to keep his dribble in the lane and supreme body control once leaving his feet makes him a nightmare to defend at every level of the court when he drives.

Throwing length at Johnson isn’t always the answer. His defender feels the screen coming and jumps it, while junior forward Kene Chukwuka’s defender hedges. Neither really works and since it was in the middle of the floor, Johnson has plenty of real estate to work with. Even though Johnson’s defender takes an angle and goes stride-for-stride, Johnson’s behind-the-back dribble sends Chukwuka’s defender into him. The result is a nice in-rhythm three-pointer by Johnson.

A hard hedge by Chukwuka’s defender with Johnson’s defender going under the screen is likely the plan for most teams, especially if the screen is well above the three-point line. It forces Johnson to go over the hedge and allows his defender to go under to re-establish a good defensive position. Additionally, Pitt doesn’t have a consistent front court player that rolls effectively or hits three-pointers in screen-and-flare situations.

This was only the third made three-point basket by Chukwuka, but he’s attempted at least one in every single game this season. Not all of them have been in this situation, but it’s important to the offense that he at least takes open looks, otherwise this doesn’t become an option at some point.

This is the best case scenario for an opposing team. WVU basically gets another defender in the form of the sideline here, which didn’t allow Johnson to push past the hedge. Johnson is forced back and also picks up his dribble, something he rarely does. His initial defender sees this and leaves Chukwuka to trap Johnson.

The paused portion of the clip is intentional. It shows Johnson 35 feet away from the basket with his back turned trying to make the only pass available on the court, as all three other players are guarded. Freshman guard Trey McGowens’ defender sees this unfolding, and leaves McGowens to make a play on the ball. While a successful pass likely would have found its way to McGowens, this isn’t a great spot to give Chukwuka the ball. The Panthers have rarely set screens that are designed to send a ball handler into the sideline.

The New Orleans Privateers tried this when they faced the Panthers. This time sophomore forward Terrell Brown sets the screen. His defender hedges hard, but as I’ve discussed in a previous article, Brown doesn’t pivot out of the screen but continues on his path and gets jammed by Johnson’s defender. To further clarify: A continued path isn’t a “bad” thing if the on-ball defender clearly goes over, but that isn’t the case here.

Johnson defender is so far behind the play that he essentially ends up in the passing lane. This play is more on Brown than it is Johnson, in my opinion. I don’t foresee a ton of screens being set by Brown, but as I’ve stated, I do see teams hedging with Johnson’s defender going under.

Why? Teams are going to try to deny Johnson getting a head start on a downhill drive to the basket, and they recognize that the screen setter is far less of a threat. I am waiting for senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame to get involved in the screen setting action as that would open up several more possibilities.

Now this is the kind of stuff that keeps opposing head coaches up at night. One of Johnson’s special qualities is his feel for the game. This may have occurred a handful of times in prior games, but since the New Orleans game, Johnson attacks before screens are set. The defense doesn’t even tip their hand here, but Johnson attacks the basket before the screen is set. Obviously, this is against a conference opponent, but it’s a testament to one of Johnson’s underrated qualities.

As I wrote in an article earlier this week, Pitt has varied their offensive approach since the West Virginia game, but the high screen-and-roll is very much a part of their game plan. Although Johnson is attempting more pull-up triples in transition of late, I expect him to make teams pay for going under screens by taking step-in three-pointers as the hedge defender clears out of his area. Only time will tell, but no matter teams throw at Johnson, I fully expect him, and the coaching staff, to make the necessary adjustments to continue his impressive freshman season.

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