LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - For months, Louisville basketball fans had been teased with the tantalizing prospect of how much freshman David Johnson could mean to the current team. How his eventual presence in the backcourt could fortify the Cardinals' weakest position and boost their chances for an ACC championship, and a high seed and deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
One NBA scout even went so far as to say the 6-foot-5 former Trinity High School star, along with another rookie, forward Samuel Williamson, were the missing pieces for U of L.
But despite a spectacular play here and there, we had seen only brief flashes of Johnson's potential. Until now.
In U of L's 73-68 overtime victory at Pittsburgh Tuesday night, we finally got a more complete picture -- an extended look at the impact Johnson can have for the Cards the rest of the way. Without his contributions, it is entirely possible that the Cards wouldn't have been able to pull out the come-from-behind win that enabled them to tie Duke (and now Florida State) for first place in the ACC.
Johnson scored all 11 of his season-high points in the second half, including a stretch of seven straight that was composed of two free throws when he was fouled on a drive; a layup after sprinting down the lane; and a 3-pointer from the corner, all within 90 seconds.
Alternating between point guard and two guard and putting his versatility on display, Johnson also had four assists and three rebounds while playing a season-high 20 minutes.
"He's phenomenal," said fellow guard Fresh Kimble. "He's going to be a star and they're going to be saying his name a lot more in years to come. He's just growing every time out on the court. We're putting in more situations with ball screens for him and as you saw tonight. He can get down the lane, get downhill and make plays."
Cardinals coach Chris Mack showed how much confidence he has in Johnson by sending him onto the court during the most critical moments - either with Kimble or Ryan McMahon. He played all but 2 minutes, 50 seconds of the last 13 minutes of regulation and all except 19 seconds of the overtime.
Mack said on his post-game radio show that Johnson was "incredibly" impactful.
"I think fans are starting to see in tonight's game what we've seen really the six to eight months we've had David," Mack said. "It's just him gaining that confidence level. You see that one errant pass on the ball screen roll that goes to Pitt under the basket, he starts to get a little too confident. But again, got to get him out there to get game experience."
Perhaps Johnson's most impressive play against Pitt came midway through the second half. He missed a driving dunk and Jordan Nwora corralled the rebound. Meanwhile, Johnson had hustled over to the corner. Nwora spotted him open, fired him the ball and his teammate buried a trey. Johnson then scored UofL's first basket of the OT, pushing the Cards in front to stay, and added a free throw later.
Johnson couldn't even practice with the team for much of the preseason while recovering from shoulder surgery and missed the first four games before making his debut on Nov. 20 against USC Upstate. He saw limited action in the first six games following his return, but in six of the last seven games he has averaged 18 minutes (he didn't play against Kentucky).
"He's uber-talented," Mack said. "I've said that from day one. But for two and a half months he wasn't allowed to do anything. He couldn't ride a bike, he just did exercises with Fred (Hina), our trainer. He's slowly getting his way back. Had he been in a rhythm and never gotten hurt I think he'd probably be a few steps ahead of where he is now."
(Johnson wasn't made available to the media after the game).
"He makes those freshman mistakes every once in a while, but none of us are perfect," McMahon said. "Even upperclassmen make mistakes. He does things that us other guards can't do because of his height, his athleticism and his length. His playmaking ability is one of the best on the team, so the more he continues to get game reps and experience the better it's going to be for our team."
Johnson's progress gives Mack more flexibility and options in the backcourt with a mix-and-match combination of McMahon, Kimble, Darius Perry and Johnson. At Pitt, it was Perry's playing time that suffered the most. He has started every game, but he logged only 12 minutes, a season low, played just 4 1/2 minutes in the second half and none in the overtime.
"David's going to be a terrific defender and when Fresh is out there Fresh has done a great job on all the point guards he's played against." Mack said. "And now David goes over to the two and a lot of two guards are going to be primary scorers and David's got long arms, he's blocked a lot of perimeter jump shots already in his career. The main thing is his versatility. And I have the ability to put Ryan in during stretches. I like the way our guards are playing."
Whether this was a true indication of things to come the rest of the season for Johnson remains to be seen. After all, despite his impressive skill set, he's still just a freshmen and freshmen are notoriously inconsistent. But we will certainly get more evidence one way or another Saturday night against No. 3 Duke, which features an ACC Player of the Year candidate in the backcourt in 6-3 sophomore Tre Jones.
However, even if Johnson might struggle at times against better competition, Mack is inclined to let him work through his growing pains.
"We're playing big-time competitive games and we're on the road in the ACC," Mack said. "We're trying to win, but I think David's ceiling is extremely high and you've got to let him play through some mistakes. He makes some big-time, big-time plays that I'm not sure anyone else on our roster could make."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org