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January 4, 2011

Jump-shooting sets Boilermaker big man apart

JaJuan Johnson couldn't have come up with a more impressive way to open Big Ten play for Purdue.

On the Boilermakers' first offensive possession in their league opener at Michigan, the senior big man caught a lob pass in the air and dunked it over his head, setting the tone right off the bat for a decisive rout in Crisler Arena.

It's been such awesomely athletic dunks that have earned Johnson's place on highlight reels the past three-and-a-half-or-so seasons; it's been the 6-foot-10 post player's ability to shoot the ball that have made him one of college basketball's finest scorers and perhaps its premier scoring big man.

Averaging 19.9 points, Johnson is the nation's leading scorer among players standing 6-foot-10 or taller. He's 28th overall, regardless of height, especially noteworthy given that his team boasts another 20-point scorer in E'Twaun Moore.

What's made Johnson particularly effective this season has been his ability to score from anywhere on the floor, moving around constantly in Purdue's motion offense, starting inside and moving out to the perimeter from there. Needless to say, it's a tall order for less-mobile opposing big men to deal with.

It was the summer that followed Johnson's freshman season at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis that he first laid the ground work for becoming the jump-shooter he is today.

"Between his freshman and sophomore year in high school, he started putting a lot of time in, doing two or three workouts a day," said Franklin Central coach Mark James, often credited by Johnson as a key figure in his development. "He did a lot of workouts and we always incorporated jump shots into his workouts.

"He's always had good hands and a nice touch. The thing he had to work on when he was younger was just that he had a tendency to bring the ball too far behind his head (during his delivery). In his form, he'd just sling it up there. But when he didn't do that, he showed a really nice touch."

It wasn't until Johnson got to Purdue, though, where he really exhibited it on game days, though short turnarounds and jump hooks have long been staples of his arsenal.

As a sophomore - Johnson's breakout season in West Lafayette - Johnson began sinking open mid-range jumpers, usually in straight spot-up situations off catches.

"My last couple years in high school," Johnson said, "I started being able to hit that 15-foot shot, but my first year here in college, I didn't shoot it much, because my confidence was a little different then. But as I got going, shots started falling and my confidence got higher and I went from there."

This season, he's taken it a couple steps further.

Take the first half against Indiana State as an example.

In Conseco Fieldhouse, Johnson scored 25 points, scoring on pull-up jumpers off the dribble, spot-up shots and long, difficult fade-aways and turnarounds.

Johnson used to be known for making open jumpers; now he's making contested ones, too.

"His ball-handling's improved and he can hit that pull-up jumper point guard Lewis Jackson said. "It's a nightmare, because his post game is so good and his fade-away and his hook shot are, too. He's just evolved so much."

In transition, Johnson's been a weapon trailing the ball down the floor, creating open shots from the top of the arc, the kind of looks Robbie Hummel's made a living off playing the power forward position in Purdue's offense.

To start this season, Johnson couldn't get a jumper to fall, perhaps in some capacity a product of the upper body strength he added in the off-season. Prior to the season, he bench-pressed 325 pounds, one of the top marks in program history.

"It's more of a rhythm thing for me," Johnson said. "I'm not really even thinking about it. I'm just reacting. Maybe at the beginning of the year I was thinking about it too much. Now it's more natural and the shots are just falling.

"(The strength) was one of the things I thought could be wrong with my shot, that I felt a had to shoot it a little lighter because I'd gotten stronger. I think the more shooting I got in, the more it helped."

Early in the season also, Johnson hit the first four three-pointers of his college career, but hasn't attempted many since. He's 4-of-17 for the season.

That he's even tried them speaks to his confidence.

Moore, barring anything unforeseen, will become Purdue's fifth 2,000-point scorer in a matter of weeks, needing 196 more points with 17 regular season games to play, then the postseason.

Johnson should come close to joining his classmate, after his 19 points vs. Northwestern brought him to 1,500 for his career.

If Johnson can maintain his 20-a-game average over the final 17 regular season games, and if Purdue can make runs in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Johnson could make a run at the prestigious plateau.

At least from a shooting perspective, it all started back in that summer of 2005.

"It was just repetition, working on it with my coaches and by myself when no one else was looking," Johnson said. "That's the time when you get better."

For the best Purdue team and recruiting coverage out there, click here.

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