How David Johnson changes the dynamic of Louisville basketball

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - DECEMBER 18: David Johnson #13 of the Louisville Cardinals dribbles the ball against the Miami-Ohio Redhawks at KFC YUM! Center on December 18, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - DECEMBER 18: David Johnson #13 of the Louisville Cardinals dribbles the ball against the Miami-Ohio Redhawks at KFC YUM! Center on December 18, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Louisville basketball was searching for answers at point guard and may have found something in true freshman David Johnson.

Louisville basketball is a lot of things in 2019-20. Chris Mack’s second squad on Floyd Street is one of the more experienced Cardinals teams in the last decade.

The Cards are multi-faceted, have talented young depth, quiet, composed leadership, and championship expectations.

Louisville has a McDonald’s All-American, a preseason All-American, three fifth-year seniors, and elite coaching staff.

Louisville is a lot of things this season and could go a lot of places. That’s why, midway through what is supposed to be a season for the record books, Louisville’s play on the court has been confounding.

The Cardinals are tied for first place in conference, hold the No. 11 ranking in the AP Poll, have dismantled a top-five team, and have shown flashes of brilliance in all facets of the game.

But puzzling trends have persisted for the Cardinals since mid-December. The Cardinals have dropped their last three games against ranked opponents Texas Tech, Kentucky, and Florida State, and in games that Louisville has outmatched the opponent, they have often let teams hang around well after the game should have been in hand.

Louisville was lacking a winning, alpha mentality, and when stars Jordan Nwora and Dwayne Sutton were off, they looked out of rhythm and appeared to be searching for answers.

In Tuesday’s match-up with Pitt in a tough environment in the Petersen Event Center, Louisville had its back against the wall for the majority of the game.

After a first half that saw Pitt lead for 13 minutes, the Panthers either led or tied for the final 21 minutes of regulation, never relinquishing the lead until overtime.

In nearly every instance in the past, Louisville would have folded. The Cardinals’ defense was sensational all night. Hedging screens, sprinting to their spots, completely keeping the Panthers out of the lane for 20+ seconds nearly every possession, defending with tenacity and purpose. Yet, Pitt made contested shot after contested shot.

Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson made multiple bank shots (that were not intended to hit the backboard), and Pitt had multiple prayers answered deep into the shot clock simply trying to get a shot to hit the rim.

On the other end, Louisville could not pull ahead time after time. The Cardinals needed someone to step in with Jordan Nwora locked down and center Steven Enoch amid his third consecutive game playing sick.

Enter David Johnson.

After only being inserted for a short period in the first half, when the Cards needed another option in the second half, Johnson came through time and time again.

Between the second half and overtime, Johnson did a ton of the damage on offense for the Cardinals.

In a game where Louisville players struggled to get into the lane, and definitely struggled to get off a clean shot close to the basket, Johnson was a game-changer that was able to open up the floor to penetrate and dish.

Johnson scored all 11 of his points accounted for and dished out three of his four assists in the second half and overtime, and was absolutely terrific when the game was on the line.

"“I think he’s just gaining confidence,” Mack said of Johnson in the postgame. “He’s uber-talented. I’ve said that from day one, but for 2 1/2 months, he wasn’t allowed to do anything. He couldn’t even ride a bike, he just did exercises with Fred (Hina) our trainer. He’s been slowly working his way back. Had he been in a rhythm, I think he’s two or three steps ahead of where he is now.”"

For the majority of his time as a contributor for the Cards, fans have been clamoring for the true freshman to get more clock.

When Johnson is in the game, good things happen. Mack seemed hesitant at first to give Johnson consistent minutes because of freshman growing pains as he was learning to adjust to the speed of the game. But after his performance in Pittsburgh, he seemed to be changing his tune.

"“That’s the rub of it. We are playing big-time competitive games, we’re on the road in the ACC, we’re trying to win. But, I think David’s ceiling is extremely high, and you’ve gotta let him play through some mistakes… He made some big-time, big-time plays that I’m not sure anyone on our roster could make.”"

Mack’s assertion that only Johnson could make some of those plays down the stretch is probably true. Particularly against longer, quicker, more athletic guards, Louisville struggles to penetrate and often settles for a low percentage pass into the lane or a contested shot in isolation or off of a swing pass.

Johnson, as we wrote about last week, brings something completely new to the table for Louisville basketball.

"“Louisville’s other guards Kimble, Perry, and McMahon are all 6’2″ or smaller. Johnson measures at a lanky 6’5,” with a long wingspan, great first step, and excellent leaping ability. Johnson has the skill set to stay in front of the opponent on defense and also contest outside shots- something Louisville has struggled with in Mack’s pack-line defense.”"

When you talk about Johnson’s length, it’s immediately apparent when he is inserted into the lineup. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Sutton (who clocked minutes at the five spot earlier this season), and his wingspan is pretty close to Malik Williams’.

Word has it that around the basketball facilities, people marvel over the fact that Johnson can stand completely upright and still touch his knees.

Johnson’s size and athleticism is only part of what makes him special, however. He is as smooth of a ball-handler as Louisville has on the roster, and his ability to shoot the ball makes him even more of a threat. He is disruptive in passing lanes and can guard multiple positions.

Louisville has a long way to go in developing Johnson, but at this point, he could be the Cards’ best option at point guard.

As a true freshman on the road in one of the more hostile environments he will face all season, Johnson was the engine that made Louisville go.

He wasn’t the most highly coveted piece of Louisville’s vaunted 2019 recruiting class, and he certainly wasn’t expected to be a major factor late in conference games this season, but if he continues to grow on this clip, Johnson could be the missing piece that Louisville basketball has been searching for.

Next. How each Louisville freshman can impact the Cards going forward. dark