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April 15, 2009It was the convergence of confidence and opportunity that made possible JaJuan Johnson's outstanding sophomore season.
The 6-foot-10 big man averaged just five-and-a-half points and three rebounds as a true freshman the season before last, a rookie campaign he'd be less than thrilled with.
It was a learning experience, though, and Johnson reaped the rewards as a sophomore, because the lessons learned in 2007-08 upped his confidence.
That, coupled with the increased minutes he was needed to play, and the more prominent role thrust upon him while classmate Robbie Hummel was sidelined, was the formula that led to Johnson breaking out in '08-09.
"It was a mixture of opportunity and confidence," Johnson said. "I think those were the two things that made a difference. I think I made the best of some opportunities early in the year. Then when Rob went down, there were even more."
Hummel's ongoing saga with his back cast a shadow over the whole season, or so it seemed. But from that shadow emerged Johnson, who scored 30 points at Ohio State, in the first game of Hummel's extended, midseason, three-game stay on the bench.
"You never want something like that to happen to a teammate," Johnson said, "but you always look for the positive when something bad happens. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise."
Johnson nearly tripled his scoring, to 13.4 points per game. He practically doubled his rebounding, to 5.6. He shot 54 percent from the field and led the Big Ten in shot-blocking, at better than two rejections per outing.
For it, Johnson was one of five sophomores named first-team All-Big Ten. Monday night, he was named the Boilermakers' Most Valuable Player.
"The key to being a great player is to keep getting better, and JaJuan's made great improvements," Coach Matt Painter said at Purdue's end-of-season banquet Monday night, while introducing Johnson as Team MVP, "not only since his high school days, but since he's arrived at Purdue.
"JaJuan deserves all the credit because he's the one who put in the work."
Now, the expectation changes.
Whereas Johnson surprised most, himself perhaps included, as a sophomore, he'll enter his junior year regarded as one of the top players in the Big Ten, one of college basketball's better big men and a legitimate NBA prospect.
Such will weigh on Johnson's mind this off-season, as he above all else seeks to get bigger and stronger and "pretty much just improve every aspect of my game." Rebounding will be the priority for the junior, but he also said he'd like to refine his perimeter skills - ball-handling, among them - a little more in the off-season.
"A lot of people are going to look at me next year as a guy who has to help Purdue get over the hump, to go further in the NCAA Tournament or finish higher during the Big Ten season," he said. "I'm going to put a lot of pressure on myself to get better, because if I get better, it's going to help my team."
"I've always set high expectations for myself. I'd say I'm my toughest critic. I know I'm going to put the work in this summer."
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