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Player Profile: Jazz Johnson

The Portland transfer has been a key contributor in more ways than one.

Jazz Johnson looks for an opening against BYU.
Tony Contini/Tahoe Onstage

The West Coast Conference and Mountain West have had a handful of very successful transfers occur between programs over the past three years. Brandon Clarke from San Jose State to Gonzaga, Devin Watson from San Francisco to SDSU, and now, Jazz Johnson from the University of Portland to the Nevada Wolf Pack.

The junior guard has been primarily used to spread the floor as a shooter/slasher and provide more space for the Martin twins to operate. So far, the results have been exceptional. Johnson is coming off the bench at Nevada and shooting better from beyond the arc than ever before.

Jazz Johnson’s Career Stats
Sports-reference.com

This season, he’s more accurate from three, jumping from 41 percent to over 55 percent, and has already had six games where he attempted five or more three-pointers, including this game against Arkansas-Little Rock.

First, we want to take a look at Johnson’s jumper. Starting at :17 below, we can see Johnson get a good shooter’s look coming off a screen.

This reel is from his freshman and sophomore seasons at the University of Portland, but we get a good feel for his jumper. It’s an incredibly smooth, vertical jumper. Johnson gets a lot of bounce on his jump shot to compensate and get his 5’ 10” frame a good shot over taller defenders, like at 3:16 in the game against Grand Canyon further down. It’s a really quick fire release, but when he spots up or gets a catch-and-shoot look, it has the slightest bit of push to it, as you can see at :50.

As effective a shooter that Johnson has been so far this season, he is much more than that. The strengths of Johnson’s game rest in his dribble drive action, dizzying array of mid-range moves and a pretty off-balance jumper that he can flick over post players. From his reel above, most of his highlights are getting to the basket, knifing through defenders, and hitting off-balance shots. At :28 here, even wide open, this off the dribble mid-range look is where Johnson excels.

At 1:56 here, Caleb Martin drives to the basket and draws the extra defender. Martin kicks the ball out to Johnson at the top of the key. The Antelope defender closes out hard, thinking Johnson will fire away, as shooters do. Instead, Johnson fakes the shot, dribbles hard and looks off the help defense to get off his mid-range floater.

The other thing that Johnson understands really well is spacing. He is a difference maker in that regard, both on and off ball. The one struggle for the Wolf Pack so far is that, without Lindsey Drew, the ball can get stuck on the perimeter without a lot of quick movement. Eventually, one of the Martin twins or Jordan Caroline gets some momentum going with a power drive to the basket to suck in defenders or hits a long three. At 1:26 and 1:46 from their game against BYU, you can see the Cougars playing really high and forcing that action.

Johnson’s aforementioned ability to knife into the middle opens up better looks for the Nevada offense, as we see here at :40 and 2:00. Johnson moves quickly with the dribble and forces the help defense to collapse on him, eventually leading to an open three-point look. A strong dribble-drive forces help defenders to make decisions, and most times, they decide to help on-ball, especially with someone as crafty as the Wolf Pack junior.

As good as he is creating with the dribble and shooting, his off-ball spacing has been sublime. It’s been the piece that has unlocked so much for the Wolf Pack’s offense. According to KenPom, their offense has been more efficient this season and they’re shooting better, at 56% from inside the arc. Spacing is key, especially to get Jordan Caroline, the Martin twins, and Trey Porter the looks they want.

Johnson jets around and is constantly active, trying to get defenders to commit or fear an open shot. The idea is that all his buzzing will distract his own defender or force weak side help to guard against a jumper that may or may not come.

Here against Arizona State at 1:31, that’s exactly what happens. His curl from the baseline around the arc distracts the weak-side defender enough that he shades over, just enough that Nevada gets an uncontested alley-oop.

On the fastbreak run-out against UALR below at :13, Johnson sprints ahead to the corner to get set. He clears out of Cody Martin’s way, who is about to bully to the basket. The help defender has to make a choice: anticipate the pass out to Johnson, a 50% percent three point shooter, or double Martin. He chooses the pass, and Martin gets a one-on-one low post look.

Against Grand Canyon at 5:02, Johnson pops out to the wing to show for a three. His help defender has to stay attached to Johnson one second longer than he wants to, which allows Jordan Caroline to bully around a smaller defender and get to the basket. At 6:00, Johnson stays in the corner, waiting for a catch-and-shoot look. At the same time, Caroline works his way to the basket on his right hand and forces the help defender to make a decision: leave the shooter or stay home. The defender has to respect Johnson in the corner and tries to straddle the fence, by faking a stride at Johnson and collapsing in. This gives Caroline more than enough time to get down to the low block, power up, and get his shot away.

Johnson’s presence has taken this Nevada offense from great to scary. According to KenPom, his offensive rating, if we don’t eliminate based on usage, is the best in Division I. The Wolf Pack still start slow, and Johnson coming off the bench helps kick-start some of the runs that get Nevada back into games.

Despite the below statement being true, and a major pitfall for this team when March Madness starts, I really do believe that Jazz Johnson is the difference between another Sweet 16 run and the dark horse Final Four candidate that everyone keeps whispering about.

His shooting, point guard mentality, and spacing open up so many options for the Wolf Pack offense. They’re deadlier than they were last season and better on defense, which should scare everybody.

Next week, we’ll change pace and take a look at a post player that is dominating down low. Don’t forget to vote!

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