The Dunk. Tens of thousands have seen it. Xavier Johnson secures a defensive rebound and begins dribbling down court. As he approaches the key a defender swipes at the ball and Johnson cuts inside to evade. He picks up his dribble and leverages a powerful jump off his right foot. ’11 #1 Overall recruit Austin Rivers (son of Doc Rivers) has trailed the play and enters the screen. Looking to deny Johnson an easy two, Rivers times his jump to that of Johnson and explodes upwards to the rim. All the makings of a highlight worthy swat….except that’s not the way it went down. At 6’7 200lbs and carrying next level hops Johnson easily out-jumps Rivers and emphatically throws down a rim-rocking left-handed dunk. Rivers falls to the ground, Johnson roars in victory, and YouTube has its next nugget. No doubt there’s more than a single highlight to Xavier Johnson’s credit, but as far as social media was concerned, the Dunk was the one which mattered, and Johnson had arrived with authority.
Johnson wrapped up his stellar Mater Dei (Ca.) High School career as a Rivals 4-star and the #75 ranked recruit for the Class of 2012. ESPNU echoed the 4-star rating and bumped up Johnson a few notches, listing the 6’7 Small Forward as its #68 ranked recruit for 2012. As a member of a loaded Mater Dei squad (including Katin Reinhardt and Stanley Johnson) Johnson garnered serious West Coast attention as a key figure in the Monarchs march to the ’11-’12 California Division 1 State Championship. The title was Mater Dei’s 9th in its storied history and Johnson’s (18.1) ppg and (9.2) rpg helped pace the record setting club. Citing offers from most of the PAC-12 (ASU, USC, ORE ST) and UNLV, Johnson inked with the up and coming Colorado Buffaloes and Head Coach Tad Boyle. The Buffs ’12 recruiting class is an impressive one as made evident by its #25 ranking (ESPNU).
At 6’7 200lbs Johnson was physically imposing at the High School level, but often seen as more of a slasher than a banger. A strong and quick leaper Johnson is comfortable above the rim and is developing into a consistent Offensive Rebounder. As is the case with many High School players his 3pt game is more developed/consistent than his mid-range, and on occasion he will settle for beyond the arc shots without looking to drive the lane/hoop. His left-handed finishes appear to catch some defenders by surprise, making him that much more effective when making use of his strength and athleticism within the lane. I didn’t come across many off-handed finishes, but his quick first step and ability to take a defender left or right appear to offset any tendency to favor his left when finishing. Although he appears comfortable when handling the ball in the open court, Johnson did finish ’11-’12 with more Turnovers (74) than Assists (61). There’s opportunity to improve ball security and my guess is Coach Boyle will make this a high priority item once Johnson hits the Boulder (Co.) campus. The Block shots totals (.5 pg) are a bit low given his length and leaping ability, but this may be the product of poor stat keeping as opposed to shortcomings in his game. It will be interesting to watch how Johnson fits into Colorado’s deliberate pace. Last season the Buffs were #183 in PPG (67.6) and during their season ending hot streak played multiple games in the 50’s and low 60’s.
Projecting Xavier Johnson at the college level is tricky. I have no doubt the talent is present. He’s a high level athlete, has solid bounce, carries a natural feel for finishing, and, as mentioned, is quickly developing into an impressive Rebounder. My initial read has Johnson a better fit in an uptempo scheme allowing him to work in transition and off the dribble. During the course of our phone call however, Johnson’s confidence in his abilities and in his decision to sign with Colorado, was readily apparent. Colorado’s slower pace, and an offense which figures to run through Askia Booker and Andre Roberson, may limit his offensive opportunities, but his Rebounding and athleticism should insure he sees early and significant playing time. My guess is early in his career Johnson will most impact the stat sheet on the glass and possibly the defensive end, and as he moves into his Sophomore season and beyond we’ll see more impact on the offensive side. He’ll score in transition and via put-backs his Freshman year, but I don’t know that Boyle will afford him many set plays.
Most impressive about Xavier Johnson’s game is his “easy athleticism”. Take a couple looks at “the Dunk” and you start to realize how effortlessly, and under control, he dribbles down court and quietly explodes to the rim. There’s potential for significant versatility given his length, quickness, and body control. Although my initial read raised concerns regarding his fit with Colorado, further review revealed the upside of the decision. Johnson will receive effective coaching, will play in a disciplined system, and will not be thrust into a high pressure role until ready. He has the talent to succeed early in his NCAA career, but for the long-term development of his skill-set, I think he’ll benefit in being afforded time to transition to the next level. By the start of his Junior season I fully expect Johnson to serve as the keystone of Colorado’s game-plan and PAC-12 success. He’s too talented, too focused, and too driven not to succeed. In the event there are questions regarding his potential next level success, Google “Xavier Johnson dunk”….or better yet, just ask Austin.