July 29, 2010

Johnson makes gains this off-season

It'd be hard to argue that JaJuan Johnson's not willing to listen to his critics.

After testing the NBA waters in May, in anticipation of this summer's draft, Johnson came back to Purdue in part because he'd learned that many league executives thought he could benefit from another year of physical maturity.

In the months since, the 6-foot-10 senior has taken those opinions to heart, dedicating himself like never before to the weight room and to the task of gaining much-needed pounds. The results, based on his physical appearance and performance with the USA Men's Select Team (which trained vs. the National Team made up of NBA pros) last weekend in Las Vegas, have been overwhelmingly positive.

"It kind of forces you to raise your level of competition," Johnson said of playing against some of the country's best professionals. "Obviously, when you play against NBA guys, you really don't want to get embarrassed, so you're definitely playing your hardest."

During the three-day trials, which were designed as a tune-up for the Men's National Team prior to the FIBA World Championships later this summer, Johnson said he was often matched up against Kevin Love (of the Minnesota Timberwolves), Lamar Odom (L.A. Lakers) or Gerald Wallace (Charlotte Bobcats). He says he played the 4, power forward, but with the National Team's abundance of wing players, he often found himself guarding more of a 3/4 hybrid, such as Odom.

The two teams - the Select Team featured fellow Big Ten players William Buford of Ohio State; Jon Leuer of Wisconsin; John Shurna of Northwestern; and Mike Tisdale of Illinois - played about three 10-minute scrimmages every day of the camp.

"I played pretty well," Johnson said. "I knocked down shots and defended pretty well. That's all you can ask when you play against those type of guys."

Johnson's improved physical stature undoubtedly helped. Since the end of his junior year, in which he averaged 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, Johnson's added about 15 pounds, an astounding number for a player who's always struggled to gain weight. Since he arrived on campus four years ago, Johnson's seemingly been struck in neutral, gaining only 20 or so pounds total. But this off-season, in only four months, he's almost doubled that.

"The biggest thing is that it's my last go-around," he said. "It's either this or nothing. Pretty much, from being evaluated by the NBA (scouts), my weight and strength was probably one of the biggest concerns. I knew if I did that, then I'd put myself in better position in the long run, and it'll help Purdue, so that's what I've tried to do.

"You see those guys in the NBA, they're definitely cut, they're strong, physical, and I definitely knew that's something I wanted to work on."

Johnson says he's got more room to grow. By the season's start in early November, he'd like to be at 230. That'd be 20-plus more than last season, when despite being a second-team All-Big Ten player and one of the best big men in the country, he too frequently was pushed around in the paint.

Perhaps those days will be behind him.

"I can tell a difference," Johnson said. "The biggest thing is I just didn't want to lose anything, from an athletic standpoint or just shooting, anything like that. I keep working on that stuff and I've been fine so far."

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