There was an established narrative among some that Indiana was a better team without Xavier Johnson last year. This is what separates the ball knowers from those who do not know ball.
Johnson, added through the transfer portal during Mike Woodson’s first offseason in Bloomington as Indiana’s starting point guard, was integral to the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament push in 2022.
Prior to his foot injury, he was electric in Indiana’s Gavitt Games road win over Xavier. That win loomed large on Indiana’s resume when the time came for tournament selection.
His established chemistry with Trayce Jackson-Davis on offense and intense on-ball pressure on defense was part of the promise of Indiana’s 2022-23 season. Without him, the guard depth was thin.
Did an increased role for Jalen Hood-Schifino kick his development into overdrive? Yeah, but Indiana as a team would’ve been better off with another capable ball-handler and high-level defender next to him.
Johnson’s waiver decision was arguably the most consequential move of Indiana’s off-season. They would’ve added at the guard spot in the portal had he been denied but I’d imagine the staff preferred one of the most experienced guards in the country who’d spent the past season right beside them on the bench.
Now he’s back “looking like himself” as one of Indiana’s captains and its on-court leader heading into the season. He’ll be key to how things turn out.
On the court
Entering his sixth(!!!) year of college basketball, there’s an extremely low number of players in the game who have seen as much or more of the game than Johnson.
Experience and age have become a winning formula as of late, particularly with COVID-19 eligibility rules making rosters across the country older than usual. Teams are going on deep tournament runs thanks to experience and offseason transfer portal moves.
Indiana has that with Johnson running the show and a few big transfer portal moves.
Last season, Mike Woodson openly stressed to Johnson that he wouldn’t have to do as much on offense as he did in 2021-22. He had pieces like second-year Miller Kopp, Hood-Schifino and Jackson-Davis around him.
He was meant to operate as more of a distributor and defender than he did the previous year, when he was typically Indiana’s second leading scorer behind Jackson-Davis. He proved he could still take charge in a game, as he did against Xavier.
It’ll be interesting to see how he operates this year. Will Woodson have the same view toward his role? Will sophomore jumps from Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware in the frontcourt and development from guys like C.J. Gunn and Kaleb Banks prove good enough for a similar approach?
There’s no way of knowing until Indiana hits the floor.
But Johnson is capable of stepping up and scoring the ball himself if called upon. He has the speed and handle to drive to the rim and the shotmaking ability to knock down 3-pointers off the catch or the dribble.
If there’s any space to be had in the lane Johnson is finding it and defenses have trouble accounting for his speed if he’s found running room. It’s decently well-known that Johnson’s jumper looks a bit off but he shot 38.3% from the arc his first year in Bloomington and 37% last year. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
If Indiana wants to get down the court and push the pace in transition, Johnson has the speed to make that work.
Where Johnson can improve is turnovers, which has been a consistent issue during his few years in Bloomington. A few questionable passes and moves with the ball are the culprit but the overall play and scoring ability has helped balance that out.
Watching Johnson on defense makes it obvious why Woodson wanted him out of the transfer portal in the first place.
Defense is a point of emphasis in Woodson’s program. The Hoosiers had the third-ranked defense in the league during his first year at the helm in large part due to Johnson’s presence on the ball.
Not a lot of guards have been able to overcome the pressure and intensity he brings on defense. With Trey Galloway next to him, Indiana likely has one of the top defensive backcourts in the conference.
He’s mindful on that end of the court and prone to jumping on ill-advised passes or a bad dribble.
Johnson is Indiana’s most important piece entering this year. If he’s able to play at a high level, he’ll raise the Hoosiers’ overall ceiling as he did down the stretch in 2022.