Diminutive Johnson is a giant for the Panthers

One thing has remained consistent thus far through the Milwaukee Panthers’ semi-inconsistent season: the play of junior point guard Jordan Johnson. Johnson has bolstered a starting unit that, until the recent injury to Akeem Springs, has remained unchanged all season long. Despite his diminutive size on the basketball court, the impact the 5’9” Johnson has had on the team this year has been anything but small.

At the time of writing, Johnson is averaging 12.3 points, 8.0 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game. His numbers are even stronger in league play where is averaging 15 points, 7.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds. Johnson’s assists numbers put him second in both the Horizon League and the entire country. When looking at gaudy assist numbers, however, it is always important to look at assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s fairly easy for a player to make plays for his teammates and accumulate a lot of assists if that player is always playing with his hair on fire, at the expense of constantly turning the ball over.

This simply isn’t the case with Jordan Johnson. What makes his assists numbers so impressive is that they don’t come at the expense of frequent turnovers. For the season, Jordan’s assist-to-turnover ratio is an impressive 3.34/1. This ranks him 18th in the entire country in A/TO. What’s most notable about this ratio is that Kahlil Felder, the only player in the nation with more assists than Jordan Johnson, doesn’t even rank in the top 50 in this category. In fact, there isn’t a player in the top five nationally in assists that ranks higher than Johnson in assist to turnover ratio. Essentially, Jordan Johnson is the best player in the country at consistently setting up his teammates, and protecting the ball while doing so.

Johnson has also shown a tendency to shine in the big games Milwaukee has been a part of so far this year. In an early season road loss to Notre Dame, he posted an 11 point, 10 assist double double. A few weeks later, Johnson carried Milwaukee to one of the biggest wins in program history as he put up 22 points on the road against Wisconsin. Going up against another Big Ten foe in Minnesota, he led the Panthers to a win as he collected another double double by scoring 19 points and dropping 10 dimes, just one rebound short of a triple-double (thanks Akeem!). In the home gym of conference power Valparaiso, Jordan scored 19 points and added six assists. In the Panthers most recent game, he was pitted against Felder, who is widely regarded as the best player in the Horizon League and is a top-25 midseason finalist for the Wooden Award. Oh and I forgot to mention, Felder is also leading the nation in points AND assists per game.

As a 5’9” junior, he is a very similar player to Johnson, but with much stronger national notoriety. In a duo of small, quick, exciting guards, Jordan Johnson won. Yes, Milwaukee may have lost the game by three, but the winner of the Felder-Johnson matchup was clear. Felder finished with a strong double double of 17 points and 12 assists, but he shot just 6-18 for the game and fouled out with crucial time remaining in the second half. Part of the reason he fouled out was because of the strong play of Johnson, who created constant problems for the Oakland defense by consistently penetrating the lane and getting to the hoop, forcing defenders, twice Felder, to foul. Johnson’s final stat line was 20 points, nine assists, and six rebounds. His relentless lane penetration also led to 12 free throw attempts, of which he made 11. All in all, when the lights are extra bright, whether it be squaring off against perennial contenders in jampacked, hostile arenas, or going against future NBA players, Johnson comes to play, and he plays damn well.

As impressive as Johnson has been on the court this season, his value to the team has almost been more obvious when he’s on the bench. The bench is a spot where Jordan doesn’t often find himself, as he averages over 35 minutes played per contest, but when circumstances have relegated him to the sideline, the results for Milwaukee’s offense have been scary. In the recent game against Detroit, Johnson exited the game at the 11 minute mark after picking up his second foul.  At this point, the Panthers led the game 18-11. Over the next eight minutes, Milwaukee mustered just five total points, and only made one field goal. This horrible stretch forced Coach Jeter to bring Johnson back into the game, putting him at risk to pick up his third foul before halftime. By the time Jordan came back into the game, the Panthers were trailing 28-23.

What made this stretch without Johnson most concerning, however, was the way Milwaukee played while he was on the bench. Not only did they only score five points, but a team that already struggles getting the ball inside all but gave up any hope of lane penetration and post touches. The Panthers went a horrendous 0-6 from three point land with Johnson out, and only attempted two shots from inside the arc. This is simply absurd. With Johnson relegated to the bench for the first extended amount of time this season, Milwaukee made little to no attempt to get the ball inside, or generate any actual offense.

Jeter had this to say after the game about Johnson’s impact on the court, and how the offense preformed without him: “He’s our leader, our floor general. For the first time this year we had to battle a little adversity with him off of the court…it got a little scary.” He added, “The way he makes his teammates better…we need that.”

This much is clear: Jordan Johnson needs to continue to stay on the court, as he has been able to almost the entire year. The special season he is having thus far has been one of the biggest keys to the success Milwaukee has achieved this year. If what we saw on Saturday is any indication, Johnson will need to continue to play like a little giant to lead the Panthers to their ultimate goal: an NCAA Tournament berth.

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