Coaches often praise players who “let the game come to them.”
What they talk about a whole lot less are the players who sometimes need a nudge to remember there’s a huge difference between unselfishly not forcing the issue and becoming so passive you aren’t helping the team.
For the UNM men’s basketball team, maybe the best example of this was Tony Snell. The 6-foot-7 wing was a three-year Lobo who never led the team in scoring, never made all-conference first team. Yet he left school early, was a first-round NBA Draft pick, is in his ninth year playing at the sport’s highest level and is third in program history in career earnings for basketball.
Fast forward a decade and three coaching changes later, and UNM again finds itself with a quiet sophomore wing in Javonte Johnson who has started every game this season for the Lobos (7-11, 0-5 Mountain West) and is entering the same, sometimes head-scratching realm of flashing offensive brilliance one game and seemingly disappearing the next.
Consider the following scoring statistics for Johnson’s five league games so far:
• 0 points in 18 minutes at Nevada
• 12 points in 37 minutes vs. Utah State
• 7 points in 31 minutes at UNLV
• 0 points in 28 minutes vs. Boise State
• 18 points in 30 minutes at Colorado State
This week alone, Johnson went from not even taking a shot in the Boise State loss to tying for the team scoring lead on 7-of-9 shooting, including four 3-pointers, in Wednesday’s 80-74 loss at CSU.
So, the Journal has asked the question after each of the past two games: How much of Johnson’s up-and-down stat lines are on him and how much are on his teammates?
“We’ve just got to find him, you know?” said Lobo point guard Jaelen House on Wednesday. “Get him shots that he likes where he’s comfortable. He gets a lot of catch-and-shoot 3s (usually). Today he showed that he can make shots off the bounce, too.”
Lobos coach Richard Pitino agreed, steering clear of any criticism of Johnson’s play while also noting it isn’t as though the team was running anything differently over the past two games. The results, at least in terms of Johnson’s production, were just different.
“It was us finding him,” Pitino said of Wednesday’s 18-point game for the wing, who was playing in his home state. “And that’s got to be our mentality. …
“You look at Colorado State – they’re so cohesive together and they’re getting each other shots, where sometimes we’re trying to get our own shot.”
As the Lobos continue to struggle minus three centers and on Wednesday also without starting guard Saquan Singleton, Johnson’s offensive numbers are simply too good to not figure out how to get him involved more – whether the onus is on him or his teammates to make it happen.
Through Wednesday’s game, his 9.0 scoring average is fourth on the roster, and he’s shooting a team-best 52.5% on 3-pointers. And in those five league games, his effective field goal percentage of 82.1% leads the Mountain West with only Fresno State’s Anthony Holland (80.8%) even being close.
“He should never play a game where he’s not shooting,” Pitino said after the Boise State loss. “He’s a key part. … (But) if a guy doesn’t shoot, it’s on the other four guys to find him. And I think that’s got to be the mentality for everybody.”
WAIT, WAIT, WAIT: That an article in mid-January about the current UNM sophomore wing is even making a Snell comparison at all may strike some Lobo faithful as blasphemous.
Snell, playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, of course is one of the more successful players to come out of the Mountain West in the past decade.
But anyone objecting to comparisions of Johnson and Snell – as a sophomore – are using some revisionist history.
Snell’s final 12 games of his sophomore season, all starts, included the following: Four games scoring in double figures and three games with zero points, including one against Wyoming in which he didn’t take a single shot in 23 minutes on the court.