Kedren Johnson was not used to sitting on the bench. Yet watching games as more than a spectator was nothing new to him.
Early in the season, the Vanderbilt freshman guard imagined himself in the game situations that played out before his eyes while he bided his time and waited for his chance to play.
“That even happens if I’m watching my little cousin playing basketball in a youth league,” he said.
Anyone who has seen the Commodores recently has seen a lot more of Johnson in the action than in their imagination.
He played a career-high 27 minutes Tuesday against Florida, including the final minute when he made a pair of free throws that pushed VU’s lead to eight with 59 seconds remaining. That was more playing time than three of the five starters and more than any other two reserves combined.
“He’s taking better care of the ball and his defense has gotten better,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “I think that those are the two main things. Early in the season we didn’t feel like we could count on him defensively, and his ball care was very erratic.
“His ball care probably has been the most important thing because when he’s in he has the ball a lot.”
Johnson had his issues with Florida’s full court pressure and committed three turnovers. For the season, though, he has compiled 54 assists against just 36 turnovers — a 1.5:1 assist to turnover ratio that is second among all Commodores regulars.
“I’ve just been trying to play a little better in practice to get the [Stallings’] trust,” Johnson said. “He’s been showing me that by putting me in the game.
“When my time came, I just tried to take advantage of it.”
Vanderbilt’s final regular-season game Saturday at Tennessee is something else he has envisioned.
A product of Lewisburg and the son of a UT graduate, he has encountered no shortage of Volunteers’ supporters throughout his life. He estimates he has watched “three or four” basketball games in person at Thompson-Boling Arena in addition to one football game at Neyland Stadium.
He has taken some good-natured ribbing from some of those folks in recent days.
“It’s all fun and games,” he said. “They might not necessarily root for Vanderbilt, but I know they always want the best for me. That’s good. That’s how my hometown is — real close.”
Johnson was a four-time district MVP at Marshall County High School, where he broke a single-game scoring record that had been in the books for more than 60 years and eventually became the all-time leader in points and assists.
He is quick to point out, though, that some of the things that made him such a prolific high school player have not translated to the college game.
“Some of the things I used to do in high school I can’t really do here because there’s just bigger, stronger players,” he said. “… I catch myself doing a little of it all the time. [Stallings] lets me know that doesn’t fly.”
These days, though, Stallings does not hesitate to put him in the game — and leave him there — either.
“I think he’s been playing much better,” Stallings said. “He had some turnovers in the Florida game, but up until that time he’d been doing a nice job taking care of the ball. He’s still trying to learn where his spots should come and where they shouldn’t, but he’s gotten much better as the season has progressed and hopefully he’ll continue to do so.”