When trying to discern the differences between last year’s team and this one, look no further than Gary Johnson.
After the 7-10 skid to finish 2010, three players left for the NBA. Head coach Rick Barnes decided to install a new, more structured offense to keep players from improvising too much and turned to Johnson for leadership on the court.
Johnson, along with fellow seniors Dogus Balbay and Matt Hill, stepped up, determined not to let this season’s team suffer the same self-destructive fate.
“We knew what the cancer was to the team,” Johnson said about last season. “I think guys had self-identity issues, felt like they could do it all from time to time. That was a big downfall.”
Now Johnson’s most important role is that of field general. He does everything well—third in scoring on the team with 11.8 points per game, third in rebounding, fourth in minutes—but focuses on keeping everyone tuned in to the team’s goals.
“It was imperative for us to concentrate on guys actually getting to know each other more,” he said.
So between cleaning up the boards, scoring on second-chance opportunities and providing a dangerous mid-range threat, Johnson must also concentrate on relaying Barnes’ orders to everyone on the floor.
“He can do everything,” Balbay said. “He can play at the three, he can play at the four. He can get rebounds, he can play defense. He’s a complete player. He’s a leader as well. He’s everything about this team.”
That do-anything mentality began in high school. Playing at Aldine High in northern Houston, Johnson was an all-state forward who led the Mustangs to consecutive state tournaments. At 6-foot-6, Johnson was one of the top power forwards in Texas, but he also practiced as a guard at times—whatever Aldine head coach Ezekiel Smith asked of him.
“When he first came in, he got people to follow him through his actions,” Smith said. “By the time he left he was more of a verbal leader and somebody guys could really follow.”
In one game against Nimitz , Johnson puts those skills to use. With Aldine down by double digits and only about three minutes left in the game, Smith asked Johnson to defend the opposing team’s best guard, who was tearing them up from the perimeter. The tall, lithe Johnson stepped out to guard his much shorter assignment, nearly up at the half-court line.
Johnson shut him out the rest of the game and Aldine won by three.
“He always knew he was going to be a big-time player,” Smith said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be a big-time ball player. You’ve gotta stay hungry but also keep your humility.’ Now he’s a great player, but he also likes to laugh.”
It’s Johnson’s defense that makes him so valuable to Texas head coach Rick Barnes, but the senior has developed a complex offensive skill set to go along with it. He’s still a force down low and backing up towards the basket, but he’s also accurate from mid-range with a low-arching jumper.
He’s even able to knock down shots from long range: he hit his one and only career 3-pointer last season versus North Carolina in Dallas.
Johnson is 0-for-2 this year from beyond the arc, but hasn’t given up hope on notching another trey.
“This year I’m in a position where I’m on the wing a lot more,” he said. “It’s not my forte, but yeah, I plan to get one.”
But Johnson remains most involved in his leadership role, where he serves as captain and mentor to the younger players.
“He’s helped me a lot. I look up to him as a big brother, personally,” freshman Tristan Thompson said. “You always want someone to push you.”
Against Kansas last Saturday, Johnson missed his first six shots from the field, including a lay-up directly under the basket. But Barnes played him for 32 minutes, second-most on the team, because every time Johnson ran back down the court he was calling out orders to the defense.
It was a proud moment for Johnson and the rest of the Longhorns as they beat Kansas inside Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in program history.
But after four years at Texas, 986 career points and 573 rebounds, Johnson isn’t content to linger on what’s behind the team. That’s not what leaders do.
“It’s important that we concentrate on everything we have to do ahead of us,” he said.