AKRON Stand beside Isaiah Johnson and a few facts become immediately clear.
First, Johnson is a massive human being. At 6-foot-10 and 290 pounds, he has the nickname “Big Dog” for a reason. Secondly, it’s loud and clear that dislodging him from any spot he sets up on the floor is a nearly impossible task. But what isn’t immediately obvious is that Johnson is one of the best, if not the best, passers on the roster for the Akron Zips.
Big men aren’t typically thought of as the most gifted passers, but Johnson is one of the exceptions to that stereotype.
“That’s always been there. I’ve seen a lot more double teams this year than I ever have before, so it’s caused me to have to pass the ball a lot more,” Johnson said.
The numbers bear out that idea. While he leads the Mid-American Conference in the big-man-friendly field goal percentage rankings, and is eighth in the conference in scoring and eighth in rebounding, it’s his 12th-place status in the assist rankings that jumps off the page. At 3.1 assists per game, Johnson ranks among mostly guards and small forwards and up until last week was the only player in the MAC to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and field goal percentage.
Johnson now ranks second on the team in rebounding to fellow 6-10 senior Kwan Cheatham, who is averaging 7.9 per game. Johnson is at 7.3 per contest.
Seeing a player who weighs in at 290 pounds and is virtually unstoppable around the basket also flinging accurate passes around the court is something fans don’t typically expect to see, but Johnson enjoys opening eyes with his passing skills.
“I think it’s just the way I grew up, always trying to make the best play, scoring passing, defense, whatever … just trying to make the best play I can,” Johnson said. “I think some people are really shocked about what I can and can’t do, and I love that. I love it … you don’t really see a lot of big men leading their team in assists … just having that in my play sets me apart a lot.”
As opponents have sent more doubles teams Johnson’s way this season, his assist totals have soared. His previous best season for helpers came last season when he notched 1.6 assists per contest, but he’s had two games this season with eight assists and narrowly missed tripled doubles in Dec. 17 and Jan. 3 wins over Marshall and Bowling Green, respectively.
According to Johnson, he had a few triple doubles playing AAU basketball, but has never tallied one in high school or college.
So how does a player who spends much of the game with his back to the basket and banging with other post players become such an effective passer? Johnson attributes a big part of his effectiveness in distributing the ball to his on-court IQ.
“To be a good passer, you have to have a good basketball IQ overall, knowing what passes you can and can’t make and just knowing yourself and what you can and can’t do,” he said.
Using those passing skills has become a fulcrum on which the Akron offense pivots this season. While head coach Keith Dambrot would likely be OK with never seeing Johnson take a rebound and try to dribble in the length of the floor, he has utilized the senior center’s court vision to the tune of 79.2 points per game. The Zips typically throw the ball into Johnson in the post on their first possession of each game to see how the defense will respond, giving them an idea of how to structure their attack for the evening.
At 30.6 minutes per game, Johnson ranks second on the team to Cheatham's 31.6. Being able to play that many minutes hasn’t always been possible, as he dealt with conditioning issues early in his Akron career. Johnson conceded that getting into good playing shape has “been a long, hard-fought struggle … it’s not something that’s come easy for me,” but believes that being able to work oneself into that kind of shape is what the sport is all about.
Having already earned his undergraduate degree in sports management, Johnson and Cheatham each found themselves with the option of transferring this past offseason and being able to play immediately at another school as graduate transfers. Instead, both elected to return to Akron and chase the program’s 12th straight 21-win season.
“If you come to play basketball here at Akron, you come to win. We win 21 games every single season and I feel like I haven’t won as much as I would like to here, so that’s why I wanted to come back,” Johnson said. “We won 26 games last year and that still wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to win at least 30 … to make it to the (NCAA tournament).”
The possibility of playing professionally after graduation is something Johnson is weighing - dozens of former UA players have played professionally around the world in recent years - but his long-term plan is to use his degree as a launching pad for a possible career as a coach or athletic director. Both roles, fittingly, would allow him to do more passing - as in passing on the lessons he’s learned from his own coaches along the way to the next generation of student-athletes looking to follow in his extremely large footsteps.
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