Warszawski: Four solid years and a big hand for Fresno State's Tyler Johnson

The Fresno BeeJanuary 17, 2014 

Fresno State's Tyler Johnson, left, eyes a three-pointer while defended by Air Force's Kamryn Williams, right, and Justin Hammonds in the second half of their game at the Save Mart Center in Fresno Wednesday, January 8, 2014.

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Still looking for a reason to get behind the Fresno State men's basketball team with the season more than halfway over?

Allow me to present one:

Tyler Johnson.

Future hope always seems to surround the Bulldogs, but Johnson is worth enjoying now. He's worthy of your support.

Why? Because the 6-foot-4 swingman is among college basketball's rarest commodities.

Not only is Johnson a senior, which is rare enough in today's one-and-done age, he's a senior who has gotten better every year. Leaps and bounds better.

"I'm playing with a sense of urgency," Johnson said as the Bulldogs prepared to face New Mexico on Saturday at the Save Mart Center, "because I don't get these games back."

Johnson is playing the best basketball of his 21-year-old life, and it's fun to watch.

In his past four Mountain West Conference games since a clunker against UNLV, Johnson is averaging 23 points on 54% shooting. In three of them, he also had at least eight rebounds and four assists.

On the season, Johnson is averaging 15.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Each of those numbers -- and throw in 87% on free throws -- are career highs.

How did a skinny kid from Mountain View with some serious deficiencies in his game become such a complete player?

Obviously it took hard work and coaching. But there's a better answer to that question: It happened right before our eyes.

We've gotten to know him. Not necessarily on a personal level, but on a basketball one. We've seen him take all the small steps. After four years, it seems like a huge leap.

"He's made himself into an all-conference guy through hard work," Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said.

College basketball needs more Tyler Johnsons. During the sport's Golden Age (from the 1979 Magic-Bird final through Duke's back-to-back titles in 1991-92), many of the top players stayed in school at least three years.

That includes NBA Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon but also college stars of their day like Danny Manning and Christian Laettner. Even if we didn't necessarily root for their teams, we got to see them mature and develop.

Like them or not (seriously, who liked Laettner?), we were invested. Because we knew them.

The sport no longer allows us that luxury. At the top programs, rosters get turned over more than your aunt's vegetable garden.

Players with the brightest NBA futures are on campus one year, two at most. There isn't time for development. It's all a showcase. Coaches spend practice hours trying to instill some semblance of teamwork.

So the game has become aesthetically ugly. Full of wild shots and one-on-one moves. Both teams will finish below 35% from the field, and the announcer will rave about "great defense" when the truth is hardly anyone can shoot, much less execute a play.

Tyler Johnson, and guys like him, are the antidote to all that.

When Johnson arrived at Fresno State four years ago, he was a slasher with good hops but not much of a ball-handler or jump shooter. He was 6-2 and weighed 170 pounds dripping wet.

It would've benefitted Johnson to redshirt, but then-coach Steve Cleveland didn't have that luxury. The freshman was needed in a reserve role.

Then Terry entered the picture.

"To be honest, when I first picked up the roster, (Johnson) wasn't anywhere to be found on that radar," the third-year coach said. "But he was the first guy, and really the only guy, who came up to me after my press conference and bought in."

Johnson bought in with more than just words.

He added 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room and improved his ball-handling through hours of drills. He works on protecting the ball against tight full-court defense and on specific dribble moves.

Johnson's improved outside shooting also comes from hours of repetition. It's no accident he was the last guy on the court Friday afternoon firing up 3-pointers long after his teammates had already hit the showers.

And free throws? That's more a mindset.

"A lot of free-throw shooting is just confidence," Johnson said. "Stepping up to the line and thinking, 'These two are in my pocket. No matter what.' "

This week, Johnson became the 30th player in Fresno State history to surpass 1,000 career points. It's a neat accolade, but one that leaves him feeling unsatisfied.

Unless there's a dramatic turnaround, odds are good all four Bulldogs teams Johnson played on will finish with losing records.

Not his fault, surely, but it doesn't sit well.

"I just want to leave something behind that will last," Johnson said. "You look up there (pointing toward hanging banners in the arena) and it's been a while. They don't put 1,000-point scorers in the rafters."

Johnson's teams may never be on a banner, but he's had a banner career. College basketball could use a few more like him.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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