AUBURN — Only one of Auburn’s 12 scholarship players has played more than one season of Division I basketball, spent more than one year in Bruce Pearl’s program and played in any type of postseason.
At this time last year, the Birmingham-area native was one of the newcomers set to join a rotation led by five seniors returning from the Tigers’ run to the Final Four. In the span of just a few months, he has become the most experienced player on the team; one of only two juniors on a roster that otherwise features no seniors, five sophomores and five true freshmen.
“I’m going to be one of the older players on the team next year, so hopefully I can become a leader on and off the court, because I have the most experience playing in college and postseason and stuff,” Johnson said to high school students at a virtual journalism workshop led by Auburn University professors.
“I’m going to perfect and try to work on my leadership role and try to teach and help the younger guys get well-adjusted to play in college. That’s one of my biggest goals this year, is to become a better leader.”
Johnson has experienced nearly every role those younger players might fit into this upcoming season. He was a starter as a true freshman at Memphis during the 2017-18 season before sitting out 2018-19 due to NCAA transfer rules. He knows what it’s like to be a role player off the bench, too.
“It’s definitely a transition, because high school — it’s not easy, but there’s not as many good players as college,” Johnson said. “In college, everybody is good. So there’s no one person that can’t do anything good. Somebody’s good. So you have to work every day, or somebody is going to outwork you. So you got to work every single day to try to get better and try to fight for your position every single day so you can acquire the benefits you deserve.”
That applies to Johnson, too. His status as the team’s most-experienced veteran doesn’t guarantee the shooting guard a prominent role in Auburn’s backcourt, even as the team looks to replace a player in Samir Doughty who averaged a team-high 33.4 minutes and 16.7 points per game last season.
Johnson averaged only 3.5 points and 1.3 rebounds in 11.1 minutes per game in his first season suiting up for Auburn. He made only 1 of 16 shots over the final 12 games, played no more than seven minutes in any of the final six and struggled at times on defense.
But you can see where Johnson might bring value to next year’s Auburn team as a 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-4 junior made almost 39% of his 3's last year.
Johnson didn’t get many chances to work on his 3-point shot between the end of the season and Auburn players returning to campus for voluntary workouts in mid-June. His only practice came on a small outdoor court near his home. Most of his training constituted running so he could stay in shape for when Auburn's facilities re-opened.
Now that they have, Johnson hopes to become an asset to the 2020-21 team in more ways than one.
“If you’re working hard, everything else is going to fall into place,” he said. “As long as you’re working hard and playing with 100% effort at all times, your shots are going to come and other good thing are going to happen for you.”