It’s a visual contrast from last season and might appear to be a demotion of sorts to an outside observer, but the 6-foot-3 Richmond, Virginia, native has played 82 minutes in four exhibition and regular season games. That ranks fourth on the team, which proves IU Coach Tom Crean views Johnson as a starter, as he has said.
“We want to be two-deep, and when a guy is two-deep and can play numerous positions like he can, it creates even that much more value,” Crean said.
Johnson has relieved Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell when the senior point guard needs a breather. He can take the reigns of the team’s offense as its lead guard — something he’ll be expected to do in the post-Ferrell era — or he can play off the ball alongside Ferrell.
The sophomore was 4-of-6 from 3-point range in IU’s season opener against Eastern Illinois. Three of his makes came in catch-and-shoot situations.
On defense, Johnson hounds opposing guards for 94 feet of hardwood to the point where Crean calls him one of the team’s best defenders.
Johnson gave Eastern Illinois point guard Cornell Johnston fits until the final buzzer sounded then carried over his tenacious defending against Austin Peay. The 5-foot-7 Johnston struggled all night to bring the ball across halfcourt in a timely manner thanks to Johnson’s full-court pressure.
“He’s a bulldog defensively,” IU associate coach Tim Buckley said. “In my opinion, Johnston is a very good point guard — looked really good on film, I know his shooting numbers were pretty good last year — and he didn’t want a whole lot of what Rob Johnson was bringing.”
When Johnson took the floor for IU’s season opener against Mississippi Valley State last fall, the former top-50 recruit joined elite company as he became one of 11 freshmen to start on opening night during Crean’s tenure at IU. Despite his changing roles from last winter, Johnson attributes his early season success to keeping a consistent mindset.
"(I’m) just trying to come in the game and do whatever needs to be done to impact the game,” he said.
Since the offseason, all of the guard’s Instagram posts have ended with the same hashtag: #NoNoise. Despite his absence from the starting lineup, the sophomore has been quiet in regards to his new role, as he has said the right things off the court while making some noise with his play on the court.
When Buckley was asked if the sophomore has bought into his role coming off the bench, Buckley said he’d let Johnson’s play speak for itself.
Through his first four outings, Johnson is averaging 8.3 points per game on 13-of-23 shooting — 6-of-12 from three — with 12 assists.
The phrase “playing on demand” made frequent appearances in IU’s press conferences last season, and Johnson has taken the concept to heart so far this fall.
“I think it’s all in being ready to play, especially off the bench,” Johnson said. “It’s a unique position to be in because you get to see how the game is being played and how the refs are calling the game so you get to come in and make adjustments and try to impact the game.”
Johnson is a sophomore, but Buckley said his maturity and experience are beyond his years. The guard played 917 minutes last season, an average of 27 per game and the fourth-most by an IU freshman during Crean’s era.
“I would say both Rob and James (Blackmon Jr.) played so many minutes as freshmen they shouldn’t be sophomores,” Buckley said. “They should be juniors because usually freshmen have to kind of ease their way in.”
Johnson averaged 8.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 3-pointers per game as a do-it-all glue guy last season, but his numbers might not spike during his sophomore campaign due to the collective talent level on the Hoosiers’ roster.
The focus for him this season will be playing efficiently on offense and increasing the level of his teammates’ play when he comes off the bench, Crean said.
“He’s getting better and better,” Crean said. “He’s as valuable as anybody else that we put out there.”
There’s no guarantee that Johnson’s role off the bench will be a permanent fixture. Crean has already shown his willingness to mix and match starting lineups based on individual matchups, as he gave junior forward Collin Hartman the nod instead of senior forward Max Bielfeldt against Eastern Illinois.
During the preseason, Crean said IU’s starting lineup is irrelevant while the combination of players who finish the game on the floor is extremely relevant. Given IU’s limited guard depth and added size, Johnson might not start for the Hoosiers, but he’ll have the chance to close games.
“I know people make a big deal about the starting lineups, and I know it’s cool you get to do your dance and the whole thing there, but I’d rather be on the finishing team than the starting team,” Buckley said. “Rob’s definitely got the capabilities of doing both of those things.”