By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY – Austin Johnson has inconspicuously become Rutgers best and most dependable player in the frontcourt this season.
Something no one saw coming.
“This summer did I think that AJ was going to be my go-to guy? No,” head coach Mike Rice said earlier this week. “I don’t know if he did either.”
Yes and no.
Johnson felt he could play at this level. He’d proven that in his three prior years.
So he had more confidence coming into the season. And it’s been displayed on the court, which has led to what has been a revelation for Johnson.
‘’In the games, being more consistent has been a pleasant surprise I would say,” Johnson said. “Compared to showing what I can do one game and then faltering for consecutive games after that. I’m pleased with how consistent my approach has been and being able to remain at an even keel and being able to approach each game the same way.”
And that approach is simple.
As a senior, this is his last opportunity to play at the collegiate level. One more season to write what his legacy at Rutgers would be. One last chance to show the college basketball world what he could do.
“You realize it’s the last opportunity to show and prove what you can do,” Johnson said. “And I always felt that I was capable.”
The problem was, others didn’t. And the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder knows it.
Johnson wasn’t naive to what the critics were saying. Whether it was the fans, media, or those closest to him.
“I would just hear stuff about me not being able to finish. Me not being consistent. It’s stuff like that…You see stuff and you hear things,” Johnson said. “Even the people that I trust, their opinions – my own parents, my closest friends – would tell me how I need to be more aggressive.”
He has been. Which has led to a career-high in minutes (16.8), points (5.4) and (2.4) rebounds per game.
While Judge is still leading the frontcourt in points (7.1) and rebounds (5.7), Johnson has been the most reliable player in the post on a nightly basis.
And hearing people knock his game have become the reason he’s been able to do so.
“Coming into the year I know a lot of people had low expectations, so for the first five games I can say I used that as fire. I used that to motivate myself,” Johnson said. “Then I started playing well and I had to reevaluate and find other motivation.
“So I just try and find little things to keep myself motivated. I remember playing bad some games and I didn’t want that feeling anymore.”
He doesn’t. Johnson has continually produced on game by game basis. Just as Rutgers will need him to against Villanova on Monday night.
So has he proved his doubters wrong?
“I wouldn’t say prove people wrong,” Johnson said. “I would say that I’ve showed them that I’m much more capable than what I was showing before…I didn’t want to leave on a bad note. I wanted to play hard each an every night.”