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Jazz Johnson’s career night gives Nevada its blueprint for a deep NCAA Tournament run

Earlier this season, the 5’10 Portland transfer made a name for himself on one of college basketball’s most loaded rosters. But will shaking off his shooting slump be the spark Nevada needs?

2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Holiday Invitational - Nevada v Tulsa Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Trailing 13-9 to a plucky Air Force team, No. 17 Nevada needed a basket to overcome what appeared to be another slow start in a season of slow starts.

When junior Jazz Johnson stepped on the floor after the first media timeout, his role was clear: Go out, hit a three and help Nevada establish a rhythm on offense.

Less than a minute after entering the game, Johnson hit the first three he took. Fifty-seven seconds later, he hit another. By the time the final horn sounded on Tuesday night’s 90-79 win, Johnson set a new career-high of 27 points and 7-10 shooting from three — all while helping Nevada shoot better than 50% from three for the first time since Nov. 23.

Although it’d be unrealistic to expect Johnson to set new career-highs every night, his performance against Air Force brought back a familiar sight for Wolf Pack fans. No player on Nevada’s roster can spread defenses as effectively, shoot as accurately or make teams pay in transition quite like Johnson.

If Nevada wants to make a deep run in March, then Johnson will have to revert back to his net-torching, non-conference self that was amongst the nation’s leaders in several offensive categories.

Becoming a spark off the bench won’t be a tough ask for Johnson. In fact, it’s what he’s done all season.

Like all Wolf Pack transfers, Johnson rebuilt his identity as a basketball player after moving to Reno. At Portland, Johnson acted as the Robin to high-scoring guard Alec Wintering’s Batman by averaging 15.8 PPG (on 44.4 FG%), starting all 33 games as a sophomore, culminating to a spot on the WCC’s Honorable Mention list. Whenever defenses focused on Wintering, Johnson had to pick up the slack. Sometimes, Johnson and the Pilots were successful. Mostly, however, they were not. Ultimately, Johnson was a fun player trapped on two, 20-plus loss teams as an underclassman, which led to his eventual transfer.

One player-development year later, and Johnson burst onto the scene by being the Wolf Pack’s sixth man. He won over fans by hitting a handful of electrifying, corner threes, using his footspeed and quick release to make opponents pay in transition.

His was an effective shooter in half-court sets as well. Johnson was the ultimate conundrum for opposing defenses: Either give him too much space and run the risk of him burning you from deep, or focus on shutting him down, which opens up his teammates. Perhaps teams were slow to catch on, but Johnson has often been given acres of space compared to his teammates — oftentimes without having to move at all.

Take note of how Johnson stays put, waiting in the defenses’ blind spots as the offense unfolds. By the time help defenders see either the Martwins or Tre’Shawn Thurman zip cross-court passes to Johnson, it’s usually too late:

Johnson’s presence alone might not stand out in the boxscore, but his style of play is a perfect fit on Nevada’s roster. He’s surrounded by three of the nation’s most prolific one-on-one players in the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline. Unsurprisingly, defenses tend to over-focus on the trio, leaving Johnson wide open while the Martwins and Caroline lull defenders to sleep by trying to create their own shots. Johnson is the safety net for whenever these isolation possessions either go nowhere, or attract too many defenders:

This combination of transition scoring, stretching zones and excelling as Nevada’s third or fourth-option put Johnson in elite company during the non-conference. Through his first 15 games, Johnson the nation in offensive rating (1.59 PPP, per KenPom), highest true shooting percentage (78.5%), was No. 8 in free throw percentage (92.7%), No. 4 in three-point percentage amongst qualifiers per KenPom (55.7%), averaged 11.7 ppg (on 6.1 FGs per game), in 26.8 minutes per game. To provide context for that litany of stats, Johnson managed these numbers while averaging 4.4 threes-point attempts per game, which was actually lower than his sophomore year at Portland (4.5).

Then No. 6 Nevada traveled to the Pit on Jan. 5. Johnson and the Wolf Pack haven’t looked the same since.

Sure, Nevada bounced back with 39-point over lowly San Jose State. Sure, that 40-point home win over Colorado State looks almost as impressive as Jordan Caroline hanging 40 on the Rams in Fort Collins. And yes, Musselman used some motivational tactics to bring out the best in the Wolf Pack in its revenge game against the Lobos a month later.

Dig deeper, and Nevada has taken a nosedive on offense. Call it a regression to the mean, or teams finally catching up with Wolf Pack, but the team has struggled since reaching its zenith as KenPom’s top offense on Dec. 5. They currently sit at No. 22 in offensive efficiency. Of course, this comes with a caveat. Nevada is still ranked No. 17 with a 27-3 record, after all. Right now, Nevada’s offense is great; its personnel has enough firepower to be a bona fide juggernaut.

This leads to the elephant in the room.

Johnson’s post-New Mexico slump is worth noting. In a sense, the Wolf Pack’s offense goes as he goes: When Johnson is a three-point specialist, Nevada becomes an elite offense; when his outside shot isn’t falling and he takes more shots in the paint, slumps like this occur:

Jazz Johnson’s first 13* games: 6.0 FGA, 57.7 FG%, 1.5 2PA, 56.9 3FG%, 12.2 PPG
Jazz Johnson’s next 15 games: 7.8 FGA, 41.0 FG%, 3.1 2PA, 31.4 3FG%, 9.4 PPG

But pinning Nevada’s offensive slide on Johnson alone would be picking nits. Getting him more involved in the offense will take a team-wide effort.

One could make an argument that Johnson is the Wolf Pack’s most important player because he gives an another dimension to Nevada’s offense. When he’s on, Nevada’s passing becomes more precise. Its half-court sets become more fluid. Its transition game trades contested twos into open threes. And from a purely entertainment standpoint, watching the Wolf Pack toy with defenses and get Johnson his looks becomes a much more exciting spectacle than seeing a historically loaded team devolve into iso-ball.

Nevada’s whole looks better than the sum of its parts when Johnson is a factor. By having Johnson knock down a few shots and make defenses aware of his presence, he can give the Martwins and Caroline some more breathing room to find their shots and vice-versa. But in order for this to happen, Johnson has to keep hitting his shots.

So if Nevada makes the Final Four run so many predicted it would, don’t be surprised if Johnson propels them forward one transition three at a time.

*Johnson did not play against South Dakota State per the NCAA’s concussion protocol.