What is Wrong With Memphis’ Kedren Johnson?

Posted by mlemaire on December 2nd, 2014

There is rust. There is regression. And there is whatever is going on with Memphis point guard Kedren Johnson. College basketball is littered with players who never “broke out” and there are even players who take a step back from one season to the next. But it isn’t very often that players crater as quickly as Johnson has. Two seasons ago, the Tennessee native was Vanderbilt’s best player and one of the best point guards in the SEC as a sophomore. He started all 33 games for the Commodores, leading the team in scoring (13.5 ppg), assists (3.6 apg), and steals (1.0), while ranking amongst the Top 100 players in the country in assist rate.

Is Kedren Johnson the answer for Memphis? Mark Humphrey/ AP

Those numbers were a big reason why the Memphis fan base breathed easier when the NCAA made Johnson eligible to play this season and they were also a big reason why basketball scribes like Jeff Goodman called Johnson a “difference-maker” for the Tigers’ brand-new backcourt. But instead of being the backcourt savior everyone expected him to be, Johnson has struggled. Actually, that’s misleading. Johnson hasn’t just struggled, he has stunk so bad that coach Josh Pastner can’t even keep him on the floor.

Johnson turned the ball over five times in 12 minutes in his long-awaited debut against Wichita State before Pastner couldn’t bear to watch him on the court any longer. He wasn’t much better in a limited role against Prairie View A&M either. Things got so bad that Pastner replaced Johnson with Markel Crawford in the starting lineup and then sat his supposed veteran leader for the entirety of the team’s blowout loss to Baylor. Johnson got a shot to redeem himself in the third-place game and promptly responded with 20 minutes of forgettable basketball (0-of-5 from the field, 1 assist, 2 rebounds, 3 fouls). Through four games, his turnover rate (44.8) is actually higher than his offensive rating (44.0)  and his defense has been so bad there were probably guys on the Indiana State bench wondering why they couldn’t get recruited to Memphis.

Take a step back and think about that for a second. The player who Memphis expected to be the x-factor for them this season has been so bad that the coach can’t even find a way to get him in the game the Tigers were almost assuredly going to lose anyways. He has basically gone from being compared to a young Greivis Vasquez to becoming a borderline role player for a team with no proven guards.

Any list of reasons why Johnson has been so bad should start with how he looks. Anyone who watched the Johnson that played for Vanderbilt and the Johnson that played for Memphis can tell he is out of shape and overweight. Listed measurables can be easily manipulated, but that only makes it more disheartening that Johnson is listed at 229 pounds, approximately 15 pounds more than his listed weight at Vanderbilt. If Johnson was an elite athlete, that added weight might not matter. But Johnson has never been an exceptional athlete and so instead he looks slow and easily winded and turnover-prone.

For better or for worse, Johnson had some inkling that the earliest part of the season would be difficult, but his excuse that he needs more time to round into form and get in shape doesn’t hold water. I don’t discredit the idea that it takes some time to shake off rust when competing at the highest level of college basketball. But Johnson had all the time in the world to stay in shape and hone his skills after sitting out last season because of a suspension, yet he still looks somewhat out of shape.

The other reason that this excuse doesn’t hold water is that Memphis needs Johnson to return to form immediately. The Tigers are turning the ball over at an obscene rate, they are struggling to find any offensive continuity against good teams, and the rest of the backcourt members are proving to be as inexperienced and inconsistent as everyone expected them to be. It’s nice that he is self-aware enough to understand it will take time to get back into playing form, but there is no excuse for needing six regular season games to start helping your struggling team win.

He asked Pastner to give him until Saturday’s game against Bradley to round into shape (apparently this is actually a thing that players ask of their coaches?) and Memphis fans hope he upholds that estimation. Oklahoma State comes into town next and the Tigers cannot afford to be blown out again, especially at home. When Johnson became eligible we said he might be the key to helping Pastner keep his job, but if he keeps playing like this, he might be the key to helping Pastner lose his job instead.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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