Robert Johnson still isn’t satisfied — he’s hungry.
He’s said not content with just being a regular starter as a freshman. He wants more than to average 9.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game for a once-ranked team.
He’s regarded by teammates as one of IU’s best defenders and is among its strongest athletes in the weight room. But still, Johnson’s his own biggest critic. He’s not settling just yet.
It’s that attitude — and his play — that have made Johnson a regular in the IU lineup during crunch time. When IU Coach Tom Crean needs his best players on the floor, Johnson is among them.
It’s been that way since the start of the season and will likely remain that way Sunday when IU plays Minnesota at 7:30 p.m. at Assembly Hall.
“He has been in there to win the games in all of these games where we’ve had to make that last stand,” Crean said. “That says a lot about a freshman.”
Johnson faced a setback when he suffered a lower-body injury against Ohio State, but he’s managed to steadily improve as the season’s gone on.
As the competition has gotten stiffer, Johnson’s shooting percentages have remained constant and his ball-control numbers have actually improved.
His turnovers, which were a problem early on this season, have dropped almost .4 per game in the Big Ten.
He’s shooting 44.1 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from long distance in conference play. Take out one poor outlier on the road against Maryland and he’s up to 47.5 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from 3-point range.
That equates to averaging 9.1 points per game in the Big Ten.
He’s not quite the go-to option like the trio of Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and James Blackmon, who are all averaging more than 13 points per game, but he’s the obvious No. 4 scoring threat. After Johnson, no other player averaging more than six points per game.
“I just try to keep going out there and do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Johnson said. “Follow the lead of the guys that did it before like Yogi. Just listening to their leadership and trying to help contribute to this team win.”
Ferrell’s been serving as a mentor of sorts for Johnson, Crean said. Ferrell has helped teach the value of holding onto the ball and making the right decisions on the floor during set plays.
That’s particularly true with Johnson, who’s been the main ballhandler this season when Ferrell isn’t taking it up and down the court.
Orchestrating the nation’s No. 14-ranked scoring offense can be a daunting task for a freshman. Ferrell would know. He operated the point when IU was ranked No. 1 with the guidance of veteran Jordan Hulls.
Now Ferrell’s the veteran, and Johnson is one of his pupils in a young Hoosier backcourt.
“That’s a pretty good role model to learn from in practice,” Crean said. “As he gets more confident, his leadership comes out and he’s got a lot of natural leadership ability and I think that’s what is really crucial for us going into this next stretch.”
Ferrell and Johnson’s numbers as freshmen aren’t that different. Johnson is scoring about two points per game more, but Ferrell was dishing out more assists.
Johnson is taking — and making — a higher percentage of 3-point shots. His overall shooting percentage is higher but he isn’t getting to the line as much.
That’s not to say Johnson will turn into Ferrell, however. Drawing comparisons to a preseason All-Big Ten point guard isn’t something to gloss over.
But still, Johnson wants more.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been satisfied at this point because at any point you can always get better,” Johnson said. “There’s always things I can do more to help the team win, so I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied with that. But at the same time, it’s a good opportunity for me and a blessing to me to be in this situation.”