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Johnson has combination of experience, upside

by Conrad Brunner || Caught in the Web Archive ||

May 30, 2011

The operative phrase this time of year is upside.

When a player is said to have "huge upside," the translation goes something like this: he's young and talented and can run and jump and dunk and do other neat things; whether or not he can actually play remains to be seen.

When you're a freshman or sophomore, that's when you can have huge upside, because there is still mystery to your game. If you're a four-year player, however, scouts have seen you so many times, have such thick files, have so many hours of film, the book on you already has been written.

Guys with upside are exciting, intriguing, risky. Guys with experience, well, aren't.

And then there is JaJuan Johnson of Purdue, who hopes to demonstrate experience doesn't necessarily eliminate the possibility of upside.

One of six players in the Pacers' first pre-draft workout Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse (along with power forward Justin Harper of Richmond and guards Josh Selby of Kansas, Chris Wright of Georgetown, Corey Fisher of Villanova and Darius Morris of Michigan), Johnson is trying to impress scouts with the fact that he is far from a finished product.

"A lot of teams say you played four years, you might not have as much upside," Johnson said. "But the biggest thing with me, I didn't start playing basketball till the seventh grade so I'm still learning and still developing each year. In college I felt like I added something to my game and I feel like I can definitely continue to do that at this level."

His numbers at Purdue speak of a player still very much on the rise. His vital statistics -- minutes, points, rebounds, assists and blocks -- all improved in each of his four seasons, from 16.6 minutes, 5.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.3 assists and 1.0 blocks as a freshman to 35.4 minutes, 20.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 2.3 blocks as a senior.

Being named the Big 10 Player of the Year for his senior season certainly was an honor but might prove to be something of a draft albatross. Run down the list of former winners and it's hard to find many even in the NBA, let alone in prominent roles (notable exceptions include Evan Turner and Devin Harris).

Though exceptionally athletic at 6-9, 220 pounds, he knows he doesn't carry enough weight to bang with NBA big men. His strength, his ability to defend multiple positions, and perhaps his shooting range will be scrutinized closely by scouts prior to the June 23 NBA Draft.

"I think the biggest thing with me is I definitely don't want to lose any quickness, athleticism, things like that,": he said. "I want to keep putting weight on the right way. I don't want to rush into it and become slower and things like that. I think once I get to around 235, 240, I think I'll be able to kind of just tone it up."

It's no secret the Pacers have a need at power forward. Whether Johnson fits the profile, or whether they'd even expect the No. 15 pick to be a need-filler, is uncertain. But Johnson, who played high school ball locally at Franklin Central before heading to Purdue, believes he'd be a good fit with his hometown team.

"The Pacers definitely have huge upside," he said. "They obviously gave Chicago all they could handle (in the playoffs) and I definitely think they have a nice core of players and the franchise has turned it around. I definitely feel like I fit within the system, just bring the athleticism, energy, quickness, and be able to hit that 15-to-18-foot shot."

At the moment, Johnson does not project into the middle of the first round. Most of the top mock drafts show him on the bubble between the first and second rounds. It's unlikely he'd slip as far as the Pacers' second pick, No. 42 overall.

Wherever he winds up, Johnson intends to prove the book on his game should remain open, with many more chapters to be written.