Durand Johnson a perfect fit as Pitt's sixth man

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Former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson earned the nickname "The Microwave" because he would come off the bench and heat up the offense quickly.

That's a nickname that would be a good fit for sophomore guard Durand Johnson. He is perhaps Pitt's best offensive player, but as the sixth man, he comes off the bench and does his scoring in spurts.

Take as evidence the Panthers' 77-58 victory Wednesday against Lehigh. Johnson came off the bench and hit five 3-pointers and scored 15 points.

Johnson is averaging 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game this season, but Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is quick to point out that Johnson has developed his entire game in the past two years.

"We have seen it evolve," Dixon said. "Penetrating, making a couple of passes, and I think he has gotten better defensively. He has a better understanding of what we are trying to do, he is rebounding better. And that is a big thing we were trying to get from him last year, [to] rebound more for a guy his size.

"He is more athletic this year and more comfortable and I know that he will have some days where he is a guy who is making some shots and other days when he is not. But I do feel more comfortable with him in there if he is not making shots because I think he can help us in other ways."

Johnson, who is 6 feet 6 and from Baltimore, gives the Panthers a wild card off the bench because of his ability as a scorer and the improvement in his defense and rebounding.

But the role of the sixth man often is tough because the player is coming into the game cold and being asked to provide instant offense. Establishing the right mentality is important.

"Coach Dixon is going to do what he wants to do," Johnson said when asked about his role. "When your name is called, just be ready. It doesn't matter if I am the sixth man off the bench, seventh, eighth or ninth. I just want to come out and play hard."

Johnson generally plays small forward and shares minutes with Cameron Wright and Lamar Patterson.

Wright said having Johnson come off the bench is a big advantage for Pitt because of Johnson's ability to score quickly and change the pace of the game.

"Me starting the game, I am like the spark from the jump and that's my goal," Wright said. "When [Johnson] comes into the game, he was a spark, he is a great shooter and we all know he can shoot the heck out of the ball, and he is just getting better every day.

"His game has definitely progressed. He is athletic, he can shoot it and you know, I don't even believe he showcases his abilities yet to their maximum. He is a great player."

Point guard James Robinson added: "He brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He is athletic, he is a lot better passer and I think he brings a lot more to the table than just scoring, so it is nice to have him coming off the bench."

Dixon said Johnson's versatility gives the Panthers flexibility in the lineup combinations they utilize in games.

"I think it is an ideal role for him at this point," Dixon said of the sixth-man duty. "I don't think he feels pressure and I think he knows he is an important part of what we are doing and I think he knows we have confidence in him. We continue to stress all the other things that he does and not focus solely on a guy who can make shots.

"He is going to take his bad shots, I understand that, it just can't be two in a row, that is what he has to recognize and get a feel for."

Johnson's overall game has improved, but he is always going to be a shooter and is always going to be a player who makes big shots even when they are contested.

He still might force some shots or move a step or two too far beyond the 3-point line, but his shot selection has gotten much better this year. Through Pitt's first four games, he is shooting 43 percent (9 of 21) from the 3-point line.

Wright, however, has watched Johnson put on shooting displays at practice and said he's not sure there is a place on the floor or situation where Johnson could take a bad shot because he is capable of making them from anywhere.

"He has no conscience," said Wright, with a laugh. "He has no conscience when he has that ball in his hands. I don't even know if I can label him for having a range because when he gets that ball, no matter where he is, he thinks he is in range, and when it goes up, I am confident it is going in."

NOTE -- Pitt's next two games in the Progressive Legends Classic will be Monday and Tuesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Panthers play Texas Tech at 7:30 p.m. Monday and then will play Stanford or Houston on Tuesday. The consolation game will be at 7 p.m. and the championship at 9:30.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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