Johnson Beats Injuries, Directs OU
March 24, 2009
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - It's an hour before practice starts, and Oklahoma point guard Austin Johnson is lying face-down on a training table at the Lloyd Noble Center with a heating pad on his back.
During practice, if there's a contact drill, Johnson sometimes watches instead of participating. It's all part of an effort to keep him from aggravating the injuries that have plagued the senior throughout his college career.
The situation isn't ideal for a sport that often relies on timing between teammates, but it's worked so far this season for the Sooners. Second-seeded Oklahoma (29-5) will meet Syracuse (28-9) on Friday in Memphis, Tenn., in the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
"That's kind of been his story all four years," longtime Oklahoma trainer Alex Brown said of Johnson. "He's had very few healthy days in his whole career here, but to his credit, he's battled through most of it and been able to overcome it and live with it and keep on trucking."
Johnson has an impressive basketball pedigree — his father, A.J. Johnson, was an NAIA All-America player at Northwestern Oklahoma State — and Johnson starred in high school in Amarillo, Texas, where he never suffered a significant injury.
Recruited by former coach Kelvin Sampson, Johnson broke into the starting lineup as a freshman and has remained there under current coach Jeff Capel. But since the Sooners' exhibition opener his freshman season, when he suffered a right ankle sprain so severe trainers initially thought it was broken, the 6-foot-3, 176-pound Johnson has had to deal with injuries.
That old ankle injury still flares up from time to time, he said, and last summer, he hurt his back, although he's not quite sure how.
"College is a different level than high school," Johnson said. "You play so much and practice so much that stuff just happens."
Brown, who has spent more time with Johnson than most other Oklahoma athletes, said he's been impressed with how the senior has handled the inevitable frustrations that come from dealing with a sometimes uncooperative body.
"It would be easy to give into it. I would say that he probably had some moments when he thought about not playing anymore earlier in his career," Brown said. "... One of his best attributes has been his mental toughness. Sometimes the more he's hurt, the better he plays."
Johnson's current scoring average of 8.8 points per game is the highest of his career, and he's averaging 3.9 assists and only 1.6 turnovers this season. Critics have pointed to his career 33.3-percent shooting from 3-point range, but Johnson has developed a knack for making clutch shots from behind the arc.
On Jan. 17 at Texas A&M, Johnson's 3-pointer in the final two minutes pushed the Sooners' lead to 62-57 and they won 69-63. Nine days later at Oklahoma State, Johnson's 3-pointer from the left wing with 2:31 left put Oklahoma ahead 79-70 in a game the Sooners won 89-81.
Johnson's personal favorite came at Baylor on Feb. 11. With the shot clock about to expire, Willie Warren passed to him. He caught the ball and shot while still in the air. The bucket put Oklahoma ahead by 10 points and ended the Bears' hopes of a rally. Oklahoma won 78-63.
"It was so lucky. It just fell in for me. It was crazy," Johnson said.
"I just don't pass it up when I have the chance to take a shot like that. I'm used to shooting them and I like to hit big shots like that, so if I get the chance, I'm going to take it."
His latest clutch 3-pointer came with 1:35 left on Saturday in a second-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan, putting the Sooners ahead 69-57. They eventually won 73-63.
Capel has no problem with shots like the one Johnson took against the Wolverines, which "certainly made it a little bit more comfortable for us. I had a lot of confidence when he let it go that it was good."
Johnson said he's tuned out critics and the media.
"You really can't listen to what other people say," Johnson said. "You've got to stay with your team and your coaches. I don't really listen to the newspaper or all that other stuff. I just really listen to my coaches and my teammates."
One of those teammates, senior forward Taylor Griffin, said it's been inspiring to watch Johnson battle through the injuries.
"It's painful to watch, because he's so talented, as far as his knowledge about the game and his poise," Griffin said. "Even when he was a freshman and a sophomore, he had great poise out there. It would be nice to see what he could have done having a strong, healthy body all four years.
"I think the point guard is the most important position in college basketball. As he goes, we go. Games he's played really well for us, we've been good. At this point in the season, that's what it's going to take. ... He's that guy who's going to determine how well we do and how far we go."