Pitt's Johnson grows into bigger role at forward
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Pitt forward Durand "Pee Wee" Johnson got his nickname from his grandmother as a toddler because he was the smallest of his cousins. Johnson has grown by leaps and bounds since those days as a youth in Baltimore and now towers above his family members at 6 feet 6 inches tall.
In his second season at Pitt, Johnson has quickly grown into a better player and has pushed his way into a more prominent role because of it.
In Pitt's 73-45 victory at Georgetown, Johnson, a redshirt freshman, was part of a strong bench performance. The reserves accounted for 31 points and 10 rebounds, and Johnson did his part with six points and four boards.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon decided against making any changes to his starting lineup after the 0-2 start to Big East play, but one significant change was giving Johnson more minutes against the Hoyas.
"He's getting better and better," Dixon said. "He's playing hard. He's a freshman, but we need him. He made us better against Georgetown and in these last couple of games. He's played well and earned the minutes."
After playing just three minutes in the Big East opener against Cincinnati, Johnson played 15 minutes in the loss at Rutgers before tying his season-high with 17 minutes against the Hoyas.
Johnson basically split time with starting small forward Lamar Patterson against Georgetown. Patterson played 18 minutes and contributed five points and seven rebounds. Patterson's minutes have shrunk in every Big East game. He played 32 minutes against Cincinnati before playing 25 at Rutgers.
If Johnson continues to play well, look for more of the same this afternoon when Marquette visits the Petersen Events Center for a noon tipoff.
Dixon's approach to splitting the minutes at small forward appears to be the same approach he is taking at almost every position.
Dixon is using a 10-player rotation not necessarily because he believes in it but because his reserves cover some of the weaknesses of his starters.
"We needed all 10 [against Georgetown]," Dixon said. "I think that will be the case with us. Playing 10 guys like that is a necessity rather than a luxury. We're going to need all 10. It gives us balance, depth, some options. They can all do something. We have to understand why we're doing it and use it to our benefit."
Johnson is a better athlete than Patterson, defends well and has the ability to knock down outside shots. Patterson is one of the team's best facilitators on offense, but he has struggled with his outside shooting and defense at times this season.
Dixon also likes the enthusiasm Johnson brings and the lift he gives his teammates when he is on the court.
"He plays with a lot of intensity, and that carries over to a lot of the guys," Dixon said. "I feel very comfortable with him. For me to feel as comfortable with him out there with him being a freshman says a lot. We have him in there early. He's in there more and more each game. He's doing a very good job."
What makes Johnson unique among his teammates is his offensive mindset. Dixon has recruited some similar players that have pass-first mentalities and defer to teammates. Patterson can be described as one of those players.
Johnson is at the other end of the spectrum.
He plays with a carefree attitude and is not shy about taking open shots. He wasn't in the game for more than a minute when he attempted and made a 3-pointer early in the Georgetown game.
He was 2 for 4 from 3-point range and has some provided some consistent outside shooting in Big East play. He is 4 for 8 from behind the arc while Patterson is 1 for 10.
When he was asked what would have happened if he had missed that first 3-pointer, Johnson replied: "Either be on the bench or coach yelling at me."
Dixon said Johnson is still learning when to shoot and when to pass, but his aggressive approach and ability to keep turnovers to a minimum have fueled the increase in playing time.
"Shot selection has been the thing we've tried to get across to him since the day he got here," Dixon said. "The thing he's doing is taking care of the ball. He's done a good job in the half-court taking care of the ball."
• Game: Pitt (13-3, 1-2 Big East) at Marquette (11-3, 2-0), noon.
• TV: ESPNU.
First Published January 12, 2013 12:00 am