Consider this season both a coming out party and a glimpse into the future for Akron’s Isaiah Johnson.
The Zips’ massive junior center began to unlock his enormous potential and is a primary contributor for the perennial 20-game winners and Mid-American Conference contenders.
“This season has definitely opened my eyes, in terms of possibilities,” Johnson said. “I really am looking forward to seeing where this can take me.”
Akron (22-7, 11-5 MAC) concludes the regular season with a pair of home games this week, beginning Tuesday on ASN versus East Division rival Ohio (19-9, 10-6).
Johnson, every bit of 6-10 and 295 pounds, is the top scorer and rebounder for a balanced, perimeter-oriented bunch that shoots beaucoup 3-pointers and defends the arc fiercely. Not only does the young man everyone refers to as “Big Dog” impact games, statistically, he influences how the Zips play.
“He’s had a great season,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “He has an unbelievable basketball IQ and unbelievable ball skills for a guy his size. Not many people in the country can handle him on the low block, because he’s so strong.”
Johnson (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) more than doubled his scoring average from last season (5.4 ppg), and his rebounding and blocked shots (38) are up a tick, as well. His increased productivity is a result of improved conditioning, confidence and maturity. He averages 25 minutes per game.
“One thing that’s held him back is we’ve had other really good players,” said Dambrot, whose teams have won at least 20 games for 10 consecutive seasons. “He’s getting more minutes this season and having success. That’s given him more confidence, and he’s taken off from there.”
Johnson said that he came into this season with a better attitude. He began last season with a wrist injury that he said put him into a funk. He ran a lot more last summer and fall, in preparation for an increased role. He tweaked his diet, cutting back on juices and high-calorie foods and drinking more water.
“I had a pretty good offseason, just focused on basketball,” he said. “My emphasis this year was on rebounding, and I figured the scoring would come. It’s been trying to stay focused on that.”
Johnson and fellow big Pat Forsythe provided a necessary complement to Akron’s perimeter shooting. The Zips are fifth nationally in 3-point field goal attempts (861), third in made 3-pointers (342) and second in 3-point shots per game (11.8). They shoot 39.7% from behind the arc as a team and have six players who have made at least 30 3-pointers.
Their perimeter shooting ability means that opponents double-team Johnson inside at their peril. He is fourth on the team in assists (43) and capable of finding the open man.
Yet Akron’s reliance on perimeter shooting comes with a price. The Zips recently lost three of four, when injuries and tired legs took a toll on their depth and accuracy. Forty-six percent of their points come from the 3-point line, according to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy, which leads the nation. They rank 350th in production from 2-point shots and 319th in points from the free throw line.
“I’m happy when we shoot open 3s,” Dambrot said. “I’m not happy when we shoot contested 3s. If I had my way, I’d like to have a little better balance. I’d like for us to drive the ball a little better and get to the line more often. Do I want 50% of our attempts to be from the 3-point line? No. But philosophically, for our team and personnel, that’s the way we have to play.”
The Zips’ frontcourt depth took a hit with an injury to the 6-11 Forsythe. He was sidelined for the past four games and may not be able to return. That means more minutes for Johnson, and that 6-9 Kwan Cheatham, a natural power forward with wing abilities, must play the post, as well.
With a frontcourt rotation of Forsythe, Johnson and Cheatham, that also permitted the Zips to protect the rim and, in turn, to defend the 3-point line effectively. They are third nationally in 3-point percentage defense (.287). But now they must play smaller at times and adjust.
“We’re a little more offensive and a little less defensive,” Dambrot said.
Dambrot is committed to playing nine down the stretch and into the MAC tournament. Though Akron will not have the size or experience he prefers, he intends to dip a little deeper down his bench for energy and defensive purposes.
“I think we’re ready to make a good run at it,” he said. “We know what we want to do and how we want to do it.”
Above: Isaiah Johnson’s ability to rebound and protect inside has allowed the Zips to focus on their outside shooting. (Courtesy Akron Athletics)