Purdue basketball has turned out some acclaimed Big Ten point guards over its century and change. From Billy Keller and Brian Walker to Everette Stephens and Porter Roberts, Boilermaker floor generals have played essential roles in some of the school's deepest NCAA tournament runs.
Lewis Jackson made similar strides from his freshman year in 2008-09 to last season's All-Big Ten honorable mention campaign. Replacing the Decatur, Ill. native was one of coach Matt Painter's major priorities entering this season, and the burden has fallen on freshman Ronnie Johnson.
Fortunately for Painter and the Purdue fanbase, Johnson has shown multiple signs that his career can make an even bigger impact than Jackson's.
(All statistics through games of January 14. Direct comparison of the two players courtesy of StatSheet.com.)
Jackson arrived on a team led by sophomores E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson. Those budding stars were supported by veteran hands like Keaton Grant, Chris Kramer, Marcus Green and Nemanja Calasan.
While Jackson may have been his team's only true point guard, players like Grant, Kramer and Moore were capable of running the offense in a pinch. Still, Grant was better suited for a spot-up shooter role, Kramer fit best as a defensive stopper and Moore worked best without the ball, seeking open shots.
This season, the role of floor general was Johnson's to lose from day one. Support was expected to come from redshirt sophomore Anthony Johnson (no relation), but Anthony has steadily ceded minutes thanks to poor decision-making on both ends of the court.
In Anthony Johnson's last eight games, he's shot a mere 13-of-42 (31 percent) with eight assists, 11 turnovers and 14 fouls in 19 minutes per game.
As a result, Ronnie Johnson has played 26 minutes or more in each of those last eight games after exceeding that mark only three times in his first eight college outings. In contrast, Lewis Jackson played 26 or more minutes in 10 of his 36 games as a freshman.
With surrounding talent like the players named above, Jackson was expected to initiate the offense and be an aggressive point man for on-ball defensive pressure. He was the fifth scoring option at best, so any points that he produced were a bonus.
It wasn't until Jackson's junior year in 2010-11 that he began scoring even eight points per game, after a sophomore year decimated by injuries.
Johnson has stepped into a lineup starved for scoring punch and attempted to help his brother Terone remedy the situation. The brothers are two of the team's four leading scorers, with Ronnie averaging nearly 11 points per game over his last eight.
Purdue's need for a scorer has driven Ronnie to make some poor shooting decisions, such as multiple quick shots in the waning moments of last week's loss to Ohio State. For the season, Johnson is shooting a mere 36 percent from the floor.
To his credit, Johnson has learned to stop hoisting ill-advised three-point shots, attempting only two and making one in the last eight games. In his first eight games, Johnson made only two of 23 attempts. A 40 percent three-point shooter as a senior in high school, Johnson's stroke should improve in time.
While Jackson was never a dominating scorer, he was an efficient one, especially in comparison to Johnson's current form. Johnson's .416 true shooting percentage (TS%) is a figure that Jackson exceeded in three of his four seasons, excepting his lost sophomore year. Again, though, the observer is free to speculate as to how much of that efficiency was due to being an offensive afterthought on opposing scouting reports.
As one of the Boilers' primary weapons, Johnson has had to learn the college game while under intense defensive scrutiny. As he gains experience, expect his shot selection to improve.
Ideally, his three-point and free throw stroke would do the same. Johnson's foul shooting is almost precisely on par with Jackson's first-year average (.591 for Johnson, .588 for Jackson). That includes an unsightly 4-of-14 rate over Johnson's last four games.
By his senior year, however, Jackson improved to 73 percent from the line. With Johnson's ability to drive and draw contact (.458 FTA/FGA rate, 13th in the Big Ten), a similar improvement could make him a feared late-game weapon.
Who'll have the better career?
As playmakers, Johnson and Jackson compare quite evenly. Jackson recorded an assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio slightly better than what Johnson currently sports. Johnson should be expected to catch and pass in those two categories as he plays further minutes.
In Johnson's last five games, he's averaging 4.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers, an A/T ratio of 2.3-to-1. Painter told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel that he expects that kind of ball security to become the norm for his new playmaker.
“I feel like he can be a 3- to 4- to 1 assist to turnover ratio (type player),” Painter said. “It's going to take a little time.”
Even if Johnson only leveled out at 2.3, that would be comparable to Jackson's 2.5 as a senior. Jackson's ratio was good for fourth in the Big Ten last season.
Jackson immediately proved capable of being a disruptive defender in the Big Ten. Johnson is a work in progress, but has shown the ability to make his frequent gambles pay off.
His 1.2 steals-per-game average matches the best rate Jackson recorded in his four seasons. Where Jackson was more successful was in getting those steals while avoiding cheap fouls. Jackson recorded those 1.2 SPG as a senior and committed fewer than two fouls per game in doing so. Johnson currently averages 2.4 whistles per night.
Aside from the big plays, Johnson has at times struggled to contain his man in crucial moments. In the Ohio State loss, Johnson allowed Buckeye backup Shannon Scott to play well with starter Aaron Craft in first-half foul trouble. Scott finished the game with six rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover.
When Craft re-entered after halftime, he came up big, scoring 11 points in the final 13 minutes as the other Boilers shut out the Big Ten's leading scorer Deshaun Thomas.
If Craft and Scott can produce that successfully against Johnson, all-conference contenders such as Trey Burke and Andre Hollins may light him up like Times Square. Strong defensive efforts on players like those will be essential to Purdue's chances of springing conference upsets between now and March.
Tough All Over
Where Jackson endeared himself to Purdue fans was in his sheer toughness and force of will. Even with back problems forcing him to sit against Mackey Arena's corner scoreboard or lie in front of the bench while out of the game, Jackson continued to play his hardest when on the court.
No one wishes that kind of injury misfortune on Ronnie Johnson, but he can win over the Boiler faithful in his own way if he continues to play a fast, exciting brand of basketball and make fewer errors in doing so. A breathtaking coast-to-coast sprint for a basket against Ohio State prompted one tweet comparing him to the Road Runner.
Johnson may be one of the three or four quickest players in the Big Ten, but if quick moves don't lead to points, a player can simply look out of control. Johnson missed as many as four layups against the Buckeyes, according to Purdue beat writer Jeff Washburn of the Lafayette Journal and Courier (link to Indianapolis Star article).
Continued steady improvement is the only sign of toughness that Boilermaker fans hope to see from Johnson. Lewis Jackson finished his career as a two-time Cousy Award candidate and a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention selection. Given Johnson's current learning curve, it's very reasonable to expect him to equal or better those accomplishments.
As one of Purdue's quickest players in decades, expect Johnson to leave West Lafayette just as beloved and decorated as his diminutive predecessor.