Or as the sophomore shooter said, "When you want to win, you have to make sacrifices to win." What he gave up was a shot, or rather shots, and surpassing his mark of 26 points set earlier this month in the Western Kentucky game. State's first 30-point outing of the season certainly looked like a realistic possibility, perhaps even the first 35-point outing by a Bulldog since 1995 (Darryl Wilson vs. Alabama). Happily, Johnson put more stock in team success than personal standards.
"At the beginning of the game they had to play us in a zone, that gave me a lot of open shots to knock down," Johnson said. "So I did. The second half we started running plays to get Jarvis (Varnado) more involved in the offense because they started going on runs. And when teams go on runs you need to get to the hole, get to the line."
State's center did get to the line a few times, as well as make six shots himself. The second-half strategy was up for second-guessing though as Georgia stormed back to tie the contest late, and it took timely three-pointers by Barry Stewart and Phil Turner to keep the visiting Dogs in control. And, on top of the SEC's Western Division.
The point remains, that while Johnson is very much enjoying his breakout second season with State his emphasis is on winning games and championships. Now if that requires him shooting early and often, well, so much the better, as Johnson believes he is capable of setting the pace on the perimeter for this lineup.
"I feel I can still be that guy. It's just certain times I have to let that guy out. But I can't just be that guy all the time. So basically I'm playing my role right now."
A good role it is, as Johnson is the team's second-leading scorer for both the season as a whole (12.5 points) and the SEC schedule so far (12.4). And this soph is certainly who MSU folk like to see firing from the arc, with a team-best 49 treys through 20 games. In fact, Johnson is so confident and capable of his longball ability that his arc-accuracy of 48.0% is actually a bit better than his 46.6% overall shooting.
What stands out that much more is Johnson's tendency to go on shooting tears. "He's had several games where he was capable of knocking down four or five threes in a hurry," Coach Rick Stansbury said. The Georgia game is only the most recent example of how Johnson can influence the flow of everything by rattling home a series of treys.
Not surprisingly, this is because Johnson is getting so many more chances to play and shoot. He settled for freshman backup duty of just six minutes per game and attempted a total of 24 treys all year. He made seven of them, or just a couple more than he's knocked down in single games this season. Still the talent was obvious even in relief duty, and a starting job was booked for 2008-09…a task Johnson has proved equal to. Stansbury thought this would be the case…but then one never really knows how a kid will respond to opportunity.
"When you're ‘the guy' in high school it doesn't mean you're ‘the guy' at this level," Stansbury said. "It means you're a part or a piece. There aren't a lot of guys who can go to college and be the same piece they were in high school, it doesn't happen often. And they have to share the ball with other people."
Which doesn't bother Johnson a bit. Sure, his assists total could be better, but given the nature of this current lineup passing isn't a priority for the wingman. Moving without the ball, drawing defenders and opening room for teammates to shoot or drive; those are aspects Johnson has developed. "Which helps him, too," Stansbury noted. "Now he doesn't see all the double-teams and doesn't get trapped like in high school, which has helped him in turn do some other things."
Just not everything. There are two remaining areas Johnson knows he needs to upgrade, starting with rebounding. His long reach and fast leap means the 6-7 soph should snare more than 2.6 boards per SEC game, and he has yet to catch an offensive carom in league play. On the other end, Stansbury wants this athlete to do more than settle for long shots, regardless of his accuracy outside. He wants Johnson going to the hole as he did at times late last season. Successfully and dramatically, too, with explosive dunk-drives that left foes and friends alike flat-footed.
"The coaches are on me hard about driving the ball," Johnson said. "So I'm trying to put that in my game." There's another reason behind this tactic, too, as Johnson is a 85% free throw shooter and hasn't missed one since mid-December. Of course, he's only taken ten tries in the last nine games, a sore point. "When I drive I never get fouled," he said, then "Or it never gets called!"
What perhaps pleases Stansbury most is how the skinny—better, wiry—soph has been able to stay on the court for long stretches. Johnson is averaging 33.8 minutes in SEC play, a full minute more than junior Stewart, the acknowledged iron man of the lineup. This, too, was a coach's concern.
"Sure, it's a physical adjustment for him. It's obvious he's not the strongest player in the world. But he has gotten better in every area of his game. Defensively he's come a long way. Does he rebound consistently the way we want him to, no, but he's gotten better in two areas. Putting the ball on the floor, and defending. He can always shoot it."
Or at least when the play-plan doesn't call for the ball to go elsewhere and/or inside. And Johnson obviously hasn't noticed any adjustments being made for the longer long shot of this season, after the NCAA pushed the arc back. "I don't think it was a big difference. Guys in the league don't hug the line, so where it's at now people are shooting way further back. So it's not a big difference. A good shooter is going to adjust any way."
For their team-part the Bulldogs adjusted attitudes well after last week's initial SEC loss at LSU, the opponent that State will be battling from now all the way to March for the West title. The Tigers can see the matching 4-1 records as a lead for them by virtue of their home win; the Dogs look at it as even since LSU has to come to The Hump on February 11 for a rematch. But between now and then there is more immediate business to attend to, starting this Saturday when Ole Miss arrives for a noon tipoff. Johnson said there will be no attention issues for this matchup.
"I know it's going to be a big game for us. Plus they're coming here so we can't lose at the Hump to a rival team."