In what promises to be a long, lucrative basketball career for Stanley Johnson, his stay with Arizona might be little more than a blip.
Already, it’s moving fast.
In just four months since Johnson enrolled in fall classes, the freshman wing has begun to mesh his offensive gifts into coach Sean Miller’s structure, all while making quick gains in rebounding and defense.
Arizona | SF | Fr.
“I hope I’m right about this,” Miller said, “But I hope one day Stanley will look back on his experience at Arizona and he’ll really appreciate everything that’s happened from August all the way through. Because he has grown on and off the court every four to six weeks.”
After 10 games, Johnson is the Wildcats’ leading scorer (14.1 points per game), and is second in rebounds (6.5), steals (1.6), three-pointers made (11) and free-throw percentage (70.2).
Counting his 18-point, nine-rebound performance against San Diego State on Nov. 26, when he was named the Maui Invitational MVP, Johnson is averaging 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in his past five games.
But it’s not all about the numbers. To Miller, it’s also about the way he’s getting those numbers.
“A lot of Stanley Johnson’s plays are happening more through the confines of team play,” Miller said. “You expect a freshman to continue to grow and understand what we’re doing here and implement himself into it. That’s a credit to Stanley for learning and working.”
After No. 3 UA beat Michigan 80-53 on Saturday, Johnson spoke as if he had a high level of buy-in. He said moving the ball inside to big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley opened things up for everyone else and, when asked about his 8-for-10 shooting, instead talked about defense.
“I feel on this team if you’re locked in on defense, balls will come to you,” Johnson said. “When I play locked-in defense, offense comes a lot easier.”
Actually, they did come to him and his teammates. Late in the first half, Johnson picked off a Michigan pass and turned it into a dunk. As a team, Arizona turned 12 Michigan turnovers into 17 points.
Defense, turned fun.
“When we start smelling blood like that, we start to keep kills [three consecutive defensive stops] coming, keep stops coming and when we get out and run we’re at our best,” Johnson said. “I don’t think many teams can get back fast enough with our size and shooting to prepare for our offense if we can get stops on the defensive end.”
Johnson has helped Arizona hold its past four opponents under 40 percent shooting and generate a defensive efficiency mark of 88.9 (points allowed per 100 possessions) for the season, which is ninth best in Division I. Arizona allowed 88.5 points per 100 possessions last season, the best rate in the country.
— Sean Miller, Arizona
“We’re a very good defensive team,” Miller said. “I don’t know if we’re along the lines of last season — last season we just took that next step. But we’ll see. Maybe we can develop into that. We don’t know yet. It’s still mid-December. We have a lot of different players contributing and they’re contributing on the defensive end.”
Already with a versatile stopper in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a steal machine in T.J. McConnell and a 7-foot defensive menace in Tarczewski, Miller has also been trying to mold Johnson’s considerable talent, size and strength on the defensive end.
On Saturday, Johnson contributed to a critical three-point defensive effort against Michigan, which shot just 26.9 percent from long range.
“Stanley was terrific on defense,” Miller said. “He made very few errors of [not] being in the right place at the right time. He’s so physically talented that as he learns the rules of defense he has a chance to be a very good defensive player, which is a great sign for us.”
That kind of well-rounded approach and mentality appears to be a quick change for a guy about whom Miller said “has a different way of going about it” in October — hinting earlier this season that Johnson was different to coach than the similarly decorated Aaron Gordon was last season.
It’s an approach Miller says he’s seeing more often, every day, and every week.
“He respects the game. He respects practice. He respects his teammates. He respects Arizona, the university, more now than he ever has,” Miller said of Johnson. “Every once in a while you forget how young these guys are that you have so many high expectations for.
“And Stanley is an intelligent kid. There’s a reason he won four high school championships in a row. It’s not like we’re teaching him how to win. But he’s learning how to play at the college level and to his great credit he has really worked better and practiced better than he ever has in the last month. You’re starting to see that in games.”