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Returning Player Refresher: Kevin Johnson

Hometown hero Kevin Johnson has made steady progress in his first two seasons as a Bearcat. Can we expect another leap forward for the 6-foot-3 Cincinnati native in year three?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone likes rooting for the hometown kid. Kevin Johnson has been an easy Cincinnati-bred player to root for at UC. Sure, he doesn't have the same type of star power as others on the roster, but he has been an unheralded contributor, plugging holes all over the stat sheet, while giving Mick Cronin a dependable player in the backcourt, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

You may not know it, but Johnson has played in 67 games in his first two seasons, as he was utilized off the bench in 33 contests as a freshman before working his way into the starting lineup in 24 of 34 games last year. With his increased playing time, Johnson improved in just about every statistical category, although his efficiency numbers did suffer.

He put in just a shade under 3.7 points per game as a rookie, but bumped that average up to 6.5 as a sophomore. Is 6.5 a lot? Not on a team that runs the floor like Dominic Toretto on offense. However, for a team that never makes much noise offensively, squeezing out nearly seven points per game from your fifth option (Shaq Thomas scored 6.4 ppg last season, but I consider him to be the more important offensive weapon) is pretty nice.

When he was only going in 10 minutes per game as a freshman, his offensive efficiency was impressive, as he projected to score 14.6 points per game over 40 minutes and had a PER of 14.6. More minutes eroded those numbers, but that was to be expected, as keeping up such a pace would be difficult for anyone in the Cincinnati offense. Johnson only had a PER of 10.0 in 2014-15 and an offensive rating of 95.6 (a drop from 112.6).

If you look at his shooting splits year-to-year (.379/.350/.659 in 2015 and .398/.313/.867 in 2014), two things stand out. One is good and one is bad.

Let's dig into the good first. No one would accuse Cincinnati of being a strong 3-point shooting team, but Johnson managed to be a competent threat from such a distance, hitting 43 triples last season, doing so on 35-percent shooting. He only shot 31.3 percent from long range in the previous campaign. Johnson can expect to keep getting minutes, even with the fresh faces on the roster, if he continues to improve as a 3-point shooter.

However, he will continue to lose time if he can't make free throws. He has only taken 74 foul shots in college, but he made 86.7 percent as a freshman and 65.9 percent a year ago. Johnson isn't a guy that gets to the line frequently, as he lives on the perimeter offensively, but he needs to make more on the rare occasions he makes it there.

In addition to his own scoring ability, Johnson also improved as a passer, handing out 1.3 assists per game, although he also turned the ball over more, with 1.6 miscues a contest.

Enough about offense. Any player can make it with Cronin if he can defend and Johnson can sure do that. He had 1.3 defensive win shares last season and a defensive rating of 97.6. Allowing him to stick the best guards on opposing teams takes pressure off of Troy Caupain and will do the same for younger guards like newcomer Justin Jenifer.

So what can we expect from Johnson in his junior season? First, and this will be true of many guys, he will be fighting for playing time. The Bearcats are extremely deep and only added more depth on the wings with the additions of Jenifer, Jacob Evans III and even Tre Scott, all players who can play outside.

However, his dedication to improving, along with his proven ability in Cronin's system, both of which  have been evident in years one and two, lead to expectations that things can only get better in year three. Johnson will likely remain the starting shooting guard, or at least the first guard off the bench, and an important defensive stopper against teams with multiple scoring guards. And, anytime he's on the floor, he will get plenty of cheers from the Cincinnati faithful.