Sanning: Johnson’s Spark Could Propel Vols Through SEC Play

Cory Sanning

Chances are unless you’ve been following Tennessee basketball regularly, you haven’t heard the name Jalen Johnson before.

At least not this one.

The Durham, North Carolina native is coming off of perhaps his most impactful performance as a Vol - 13 points, three rebounds, a block and a steal - in a season-high 29 minutes off the bench as Tennessee rallied in the second half to knock off Missouri 69-59 in Columbia.

After suffering consecutive losses for the second time in five games, Johnson’s timely contributions were exactly what Tennessee was in need of during a time of desperation.

The journey to that point hasn’t always been easy, either.

While Johnson thrived in a starring role at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, his transition to the collegiate level has had its share of ups and downs.

After redshirting for the 2016-17 season, Johnson began his Tennessee career against Presbyterian on Nov. 10, 2017, notching two points and two rebounds despite playing just eight minutes.

While the Vols would go on to win the SEC regular season championship, Johnson’s role would be limited.

He appeared in 13 total games, tallying 16 total points and 10 total rebounds while knocking down 50 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, albeit in limited attempts. Johnson has steadily saw his minutes increase over the years, but he’s yet to gain consistent traction in Rick Barnes’ rotation.

That very well may have changed on Tuesday.

As previously mentioned, Tennessee had lost its past two games by a combined margin of 34 points, both of them coming at home. UT hadn’t lost consecutive home games since the first season under Barnes back in 2015-16.

Granted, a lot of that can be attributed to the loss of five significant contributors from last year’s team, but UT’s expectations heading into this season remained the same from within.

It wasn’t until recently that the Vols dropped out of the AP Top 25, even.

At one point, it seemed as if Tennessee was well on its way to climbing back within the top 10, but unforeseen circumstances derailed those chances. Even had Lamonte Turner been able to remain healthy, contending for a national championship would have been quite an uphill battle for this version of the Vols.

For Johnson, his uphill battle for consistent minutes has been a lengthy one.

Despite that, he’s remained one of the hardest workers on UT’s roster since he arrived. That was never more apparent than during last season, when Johnson and Admiral Schofield were routinely the first players on the court prior to a game.

Even while playing reduced minutes, he continues to remain upbeat about his role.

He knows what he has to do to improve his offensive game and he’s aware of Barnes’ demands on defense. One of Johnson’s greatest strengths is the muscle between his ears, which ultimately can make the difference between a “good” and “great” basketball player.

Johnson’s IQ was on display against the Tigers, going 3-of-5 from 3-point range while remaining active on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s plays like that - and games such as those - that will earn Johnson the playing time that he wants and deserves.

With Turner not able to suit up again, the Vols will need plenty more of this from Johnson moving forward. 

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