Through 7 games, Xavier Johnson is averaging 14.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game-all of which very impressive, expected numbers for the junior guard. However, he is only averaging 27.1 minutes per game as opposed to last year’s 33.3.
A big reason behind this lack of minutes for Johnson has been his struggle to stay out of foul trouble. Through seven games, Johnson is second on the team in total fouls (23) and average fouls per game (3.3). Both of those categories are led by forward Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly.
Johnson’s size, at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, plus his elite explosiveness and quickness, combine to form a wrecking ball in transition. Johnson is one of the craftiest guards in the ACC when it comes to finding his way to the rim, but at times can appear out-of-control when doing so. Because of that, many of his fouls so far have been of the charging variety.
On Monday afternoon, head coach Jeff Capel spoke on Johnson’s recent foul trouble, specifically his performance against Louisville in which he fouled out.
“With Xavier, you just have to understand how teams are guarding you, what they’re trying to do,” he said. “Every time he drove, he’s so fast and quick he can beat his guy, but you’ve got to understand that there are secondary defenders coming, that they’re playing you for a charge.”
Johnson finished that game with ten points, zero assists, and a team-low minus-18 +/- rating.
“He had two in the first half, he tried to take another one, but they called a block, and the very first play of the second half, it was the same thing,” Capel added. “So he’s got to just make an adjustment and understand that when you beat that first guy, maybe one less dribble and getting to a spot and pulling up. Or, finding the guy, because they’re leaving another guy, it’s a secondary defender coming over to take the charge.”
After the Louisville game, associate head coach Tim O’Toole also addressed Johnson’s foul trouble, attributing some of it to Louisville’s defensive strategy.
“He got the charges early on, he said. “You knew Louisville, this is what they do. They’re gapped up, they’re sitting in those lanes, if you leave your feet, they’re gonna be there. If you’re a team prepared for Pitt, X is the first thing on your list. And so the reality is, they’re gonna throw a lot of things at you and you’ve gotta understand that you might have to alter what you do because these guys are going to throw everything at you including the kitchen sink. And, he got in foul trouble with the charges, and then the reaches were kind of just sloppy.”
In Johnson’s two top-scoring games, coming against Drexel and Northwestern, he finished with three fouls and four fouls, respectively. He has not gone a game without a foul this season, and has fouled three or more times in five out of seven games. Last season, Johnson committed 92 total fouls, averaging 2.79 fouls per game across 33 games.
Although his fouling numbers seem to be holding him back, Johnson has also improved in other important categories including points per game and 3-point percentage and is having a solid year overall for the Panthers. At times, Johnson has shown flashes of excellence, including an inspiring second-half performance in the win against Northwestern, who is now ranked in the top-25 in the nation.
Johnson will look to rebound in Pitt’s next game, whether it is against Notre Dame on Jan. 2 or after that, as Pitt is currently dealing with COVID-19 within the program.