Belmont's Johnson shows star power in a system designed for many to shine

Monday, December 5, 2011 at 10:40pm

Belmont’s success last season derived from balance.

With a 10-player rotation, the Bruins overwhelmed teams with their depth. There was no one superstar.

Seven games into the 2011-12 campaign that still holds true. Six players average nine points or more.

Even so, the emergence of Kerron Johnson can’t be overlooked.

After scoring a career-high 25 points against Mercer on Saturday, the junior point guard nearly has doubled his point production from a season ago. Heading into Tuesday’s 7 p.m. matchup against Tennessee State at the Curb Event Center, Johnson leads the Bruins (5-2) with 15.1 points per game.

“He has come along for us, developing into kind of a new role this year — scoring,” senior Mick Hedgepeth said. “He has put us on his back a couple times.”

Highly touted and extremely talented, Johnson left Madison Academy in Hunstville, Ala., on top — as Alabama’s Mr. Basketball in 2009.

As a senior, he averaged 24 points and was used to being the go-to threat on offense. That was saying something, especially with 6-foot-11 Muniru Bawa on his team. The two will reunite on Tuesday as Bawa is in his first year with TSU (3-5) after transferring from Indiana.

At Belmont, though, Johnson's role changed. Still impactful, he immediately factored into coach Rick Byrd’s plans, playing in 30 games with 20 starts as a freshman. Last year, in Byrd’s 10-player rotation, he came off the bench in all 35 games.

The Bruins turned to Johnson for his quick slashing ability in the paint and pesky defense — he set the school record with nine steals in a game last February.

Regardless, it was still an adjustment as he averaged just seven points over his first two seasons and didn’t score more than 15 in a single game.

“It was difficult at first,” Johnson said. “You are coming out of high school and you have all these expectations of yourself. When they don’t quite exceed what you think they will, it is hard. But that is part of growing. That is part of maturing.”

Determined to grow as a player, Johnson spent the offseason studying game film after game film and worked “harder than I have ever worked.”

A 66 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman, he has made 80 percent of his foul shots this season. That’s good news for the Bruins as the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Johnson often finds himself on the free-throw line. He leads the team with 45 free-throw attempts. Against Mercer, he was 16-of-19 from the line.

“He probably gets fouled more driving the basketball than any player I’ve ever coached,” said Byrd, who has started Johnson in all seven games. “He has the kind of strength to absorb that punishment and finish and not lose the ball.”

He’s also fine-tuned his jump shot, shooting a team-best 53.2 percent from the field.

Johnson said he has also had many discussions with Byrd about how he can mature — with his play and as a leader.

“He is extremely competitive and driven,” Byrd said. “It is pretty obvious that his work between last year and this year was pretty significant because he has improved in so many areas. He has just improved in terms of decision making, finishing against bigger guys and certainly in being able to find teammates who were open because of his penetration and creating help.”

Johnson continues to excel at distributing the ball and taking it away — leading the team in assists (42) and steals (15).

On a well-balanced team he knows his role can change from game to game and he won’t be asked to carry the Bruins every time out. And that is quite all right with Johnson.

“I think [the first two years] made me a better player. I think that has made me a better leader. It has made me become a complete player,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you need to take those lesser roles to really learn a lot more about yourself, learn about what kind of player you want to be.”