No words describe Xavier Johnson better than these three: talented, confident, honest.
Pitt’s point guard, who recruited as a facilitator but has turned into the most prolific freshman scorer in school history, doesn’t back down from attacking the basket even when a taller, stronger opponent is guarding it.
“I’m a dude, a big competitor,” he said.
Nor does he sugar-coat answers when talking about his game and future.
While Johnson and his teammates were enjoying their first weekend without a game since before Christmas, he was asked if he sees himself staying at Pitt through all four years before advancing to the next level.
He answered without hesitation.
“Honestly, I don’t see myself being here four years,” he said. “My dad and I talking, he doesn’t see me four years. My AAU coach doesn’t see me four years, either.”
Then came the follow-up question: “Because your talent is going to eventually …?”
“It’s going to explode,” Johnson said before hearing the entire question. “I’m going to keep getting better and better every day.”
Johnson’s remark should not be misunderstood as bravado. He does not think he’s NBA-ready at the moment. He talked confidently about how lessons learned this season will help turn losses into victories next year at Pitt. He knows he has plenty of wrinkles in his game that must be removed.
“My efficiency,” he said when asked what he needs to improve. “I’m turning the ball over way too much (103 turnovers in 27 games). I have to pick up my assist/turnover ratio (124/103). On defense, I’m allowing my man to score way too many points.”
Plus, there’s the issue of free-throw shooting. Through the first 17 games, he shot 84.1 percent (90 of 107). Since Pitt’s most recent victory against Florida State on Jan. 14, he is only 68.8 (44 of 64).
“I have to pick it back up,” he said.
Even setting Pitt’s all-time freshman scoring record — reaching 448 points in two fewer games than it took all-time great Charles Smith to score 435 — doesn’t interest him as much as trying to reverse Pitt’s 10-game losing streak.
“It means a lot of things,” he said of the record. “I’m proud of it, but at the same time, I’m really not happy because we’re not winning.”
A year ago, Johnson was leading Bishop O’Connell High School to a 30-9 record and a No. 5 ranking in Virginia.
“I’m not used to losing a lot of games,” he said. “This is kind of hard for me. At the same time, it’s a learning experience because we still have next year to go.”
Johnson, 19, has known he could compete with older players as early as sixth grade, when he was coached by his father, Michael, who was a player at Covenant (Ga.) College.
“I was playing against eighth-graders, and I held my own,” he said. “I guess that’s where (the confidence) comes from.
“My dad challenges me a lot. He always told me, ‘Be confident in whatever you do.’ It mostly comes from him.”
When Johnson (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) arrived at Pitt, he was scoring and setting up others to score the first time he scrimmaged against his new teammates.
“I held my own, first day,” he said with a broad smile.
Before that day, Johnson took a wayward route to Pitt. You might say coach Jeff Capel got lucky.
Johnson committed to Nebraska but decommitted when assistant coach Kenya Hunter left to join coach Danny Hurley at Connecticut. Pitt was not recruiting Johnson under former coach Kevin Stallings, but Capel jumped into the hunt immediately.
“Washington was actually my first choice, but they rushed me into a decision I didn’t want to make,” he said, mentioning Creighton and Georgia Tech as other schools recruiting him.
“I chose Pitt. It wasn’t really my first choice, but it was my first choice after I decommited to Nebraska. Coach Capel and the coaching staff were recruiting me hard the first day I announced my decommitment from Nebraska. I just fell in love with coach Capel, and I just believed in what he was doing.”
Johnson said the initial plan called for him to set up others to score while his own points would be a bonus. Apparently, he took that as a challenge.
“(Setting a scoring record) wasn’t one of my goals this year, to be honest with you,” he said. “Coach recruited me to be a facilitator. Nobody really knew I could shoot. The whole summer, I was working at it, working at it. I was getting better and better.”
Now, he’s second on the team in 3-point shooting (38.7 percent) to Jared Wilson-Frame’s 39.
Of all the members of Capel’s staff, associate head coach Tim O’Toole can offer the best historical perspective on what Johnson means to the team. O’Toole competed against Pitt for many years while on staff at Syracuse and Seton Hall, and he has seen and tried to defend some of the top point guards in Pitt history.
“(Seeing Johnson) reminded me this is a Pittsburgh guard,” O’Toole said. “No different than Levance (Fields) and Brandon (Knight) and (Carl) Krauser.
“If you had to play against them, you were going to be lumped up the next day. Somehow, some way, you had bruises all over your body. You had a bang in your head.
“That’s (Johnson). He’s tough. He’s competitive, and nothing’s going to be easy. He competes as hard as anybody, but he’s young. His position is the hardest, like a quarterback. They make all the decisions, right, wrong or indifferent.”
O’Toole said Johnson has no choice but to be tough.
“Young guy, coming out of high school,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, you have coach (Mike) Krzyzewski, coach (Jim) Boeheim, coach (Roy) Williams, all Hall of Fame dudes, coming at you, throwing everything and the kitchen sink to try and make you look bad.
“He’s going to go through some tough times. But tough times don’t last. Tough people do, and he’s one of those tough guys. He’s like a Pittsburgh guy, which is neat.”