Louisville star forward Montrezl Harrell is without a doubt one of the best players in the country, but he is only one player at one position and needs relief every now and again. Will he have it in the tournament in the form of freshman power forward Jaylen Johnson?
Previewing Friday afternoon’s first-round matchup with UC-Irvine, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said the time between losing to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and traveling to Seattle for the NCAA Tournament gave him a chance to give Harrell much-needed rest as well as put in extra work with Johnson.
“It really was a blessing in disguise,” said Pitino. “I got a chance to rest Montrezl Harrell and work with Jaylen Johnson and we really benefitted from it.”
Harrell has carried Louisville almost single-handedly this season, and as the team’s most valuable player, he has been the center of every opponent’s scouting report. Other teams have attempted to get inside his head mentally, double team him time after time, and he has fought through the adversity, but over the past month or so, his stamina is beginning to wane.
The problem can be attributed to the Cards’ severe lack of depth, particularly in the frontcourt. Harrell has been forced to play nearly every minute of every game, and against ACC competition, that can be both mentally and physically exhausting. For the majority of the season, Louisville has essentially played with just three major contributors along with other players playing bit parts (at best), but in the tourney, they are going to need more. Johnson has the talent to make an impact, and he has shown flashes of an impact player the past several games.
After being forced to miss the summer practicing with the team due to the always-right NCAA’s delaying of his eligibility, Johnson was behind the rest of the freshman class. For a system as complex as Pitino’s, that may as well mean a redshirt, for if a player cannot execute his game plan, he will spend most of the time on the bench. For Johnson, that was the case most of the season. In a recent press conference, though, Pitino mentioned Johnson as one of the two freshmen (center Matz Stockman being the other) who had improved the most over the season.
As a result of his improvement, Johnson has played the past four games (after sitting through the previous four), mainly as relief for Harrell prior to the media timeouts, but he has done more than just stand around as an extra body on the floor until Harrell comes back. He has exhibited confidence and skill, albeit in limited minutes.
He has put the ball on the floor, made impressive moves to the basket, and played good defense. He has not finished any drives to the basket or made any highlight reel players, but he is getting deflections and appears much more in sync with the offense. With a little extra work with Pitino, can he put it all together to help Louisville make a run?
The Cards could certainly use it. Whether it comes from Johnson or another bench player, it will be tough for Louisville to advance very far without a contribution from a player not named Harrell, Rozier, or Blackshear.
The two players who most need to deliver are the other two starters in freshmen point guard Quentin Snider and center Chinanu Onuaku. Snider has proven to be a valuable offensive asset, but he will have to consistently hit the outside jumper (something he did not do vs. UNC) and do his best to make up for his lack of lateral quickness on the defensive end. Onuaku is going to have to give 100% effort rather than the 60% Pitino has accused him of giving and get rebounds and put backs.
Johnson, though, should he be able to capitalize off of the extra work this week, could give Louisville the offensive production from the frontcourt Pitino has been pining for. At the very least, it will take some pressure off of Harrell, whether they be on the court together or if Johnson spells him off the bench.
The future is bright for the young big man who was regarded as the best high school player in the state of Michigan last year, but for Louisville to make a run in this year’s tournament, they could certainly use an impact performance from him sooner than later.