It’s hard dispute the value slam dunks have on momentum and atmosphere in the game of basketball.
And for Georgia Southern, the energizing shots always seem a little bit sweeter when they come from unassuming sophomore guard A.J. Johnson, generously listed as 6-feet tall. Opponents seem blindsided when Johnson flies upward —usually for the finishing touch of crowd-pleasing alley-oop.
“It kind of sends a shock wave through opposing teams,” leading scorer Louis Graham said of Johnson’s skill. “It’s hard enough to play in Hanner, and if you get guards dunking (on you), you know you’re in trouble. It’s good for our team. We want to see A.J. dunk.”
Graham said Johnson’s big plays help take pressure off of himself plus he can turn to the sophomore for advice, specifically on how to keep the ball in the rim. Having the right touch is definitely important, especially with snap-back rims.
“He tells me to stop dunking it so hard,” said the 6-foot-8 Graham. “That’s the problem. I’m trying to tear the bolts out the rim, and (the ball’s) not staying down. I’m going to try and get that together. I usually don’t miss that many dunks, but (defenders) are usually all over me and I’m trying to get it off quick.”
Johnson’s big-play stuffs are the flashiest part of the Atlanta native’s role, which centers on providing valuable minutes off the bench at the one or two-guard position. Eagle coach Jeff Price said Johnson has learned and accepted his job very well.
“That’s very important for any good team,” Price said. “He understands his day is going to come, and he’s an integral part of our team now. His last two years, he’ll be a major part of our team. He’s a very strong, physical athlete.”
Price plans to increase Johnson’s playing time as the Eagles approach the conference tournament beginning March 7.
“Coach really emphasizes scoring and how the bench needs to help a lot, so I just want to come in, play aggressive and seize the moment,” Johnson said. “Compared to everybody else I’m the little guy, so they don’t expect me to get up like I do. I just try to take advantage of my opportunity.”
Johnson has played in every game of his career, turning in a solid freshman year and averaging 5.7 points and 1.7 rebounds a game this season. He’s also racked up 44 assists and 19 steals and is shooting a team-best 57.9 percent (11 of 19) from behind the arc. His ability to penetrate puts constant pressure on defenders.
“He brings a lot of intensity defensively and his fast-court, pushing-the-ball style of play,” Graham said. “If they leave him open, he’ll hit it. Right now I think he’s flying under the radar, but once he keeps doing what he’s doing he’s not going to be a player (that can be left unguarded).”
Scouting Western Carolina
The Eagles (15-8, 8-5) continue their homestand at 7:30 tonight against Western Carolina. The Catamounts sit at the bottom of the SoCon’s North Division with a 7-15 overall record (3-9 in league play) and are coming off a six-point home upset of Chattanooga Monday night.
“I was very shocked (WCU beat UTC), but any given day anybody can get beat,” Graham said. “We learned that playing against Wofford here. So we can’t take anybody for granted.”
Georgia Southern topped the Catamounts by 11 points at their place last week and will look to make a season sweep tonight.
GSU to honor Jayson Foster
Former Georgia Southern All-American quarterback Jayson Foster will be at Hanner beginning an hour before tip-off for autographs and pictures. The 2007 Walter Payton Award winner will also be honored at halftime.
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.