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January 31, 2013

Watching and waiting

When the Penn State men's basketball takes the floor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Thursday night in Iowa City, one of Patrick Chambers' best scorers will be sitting court side.

All game. He'll sit there against Purdue next week, too, and through the duration of the 2012-13 season.

Even through the first month of action next year, 6-foot-1, 170 pound combo-guard John Johnson will be forced to watch all of the Nittany Lions' game action from the sidelines due to NCAA transfer rules.

"It's hard not being able to play, but it's definitely not hard for me to be on the side, supporting my teammates and getting guys better in practice," Johnson said before the team's practice Monday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center. "Guys like D.J. (Newbill), helping him get better and he's helping me get better every day. It's hard, but it's not too hard."

Chambers, stuck in the mire of an eight-game losing streak, might disagree somewhat.

With star senior point guard Tim Frazier also sitting on the bench, sidelined for all but the first four games this season, there's no guarantee that even Johnson could resurrect the Nittany Lions' lifeless season.

Yet, for an offense that averages a league-worst 54.2 points per game against Big Ten opponents, Johnson represents a desperately needed third scorer that currently doesn't exist among the rest of Chambers' eligible roster.

"He's the best player on the scout team. He's lit us up like a Christmas tree a few times," Chambers said. "He can really score the basketball. He scores in bunches and he scores a variety of ways. Threes, floaters, pull-ups, fadeaways. He's got every shot that you can possibly need as a combo guard to score."

His high school career at both Girard College and Life Center Academy in the Philadelphia area showed as much, earning all-state honors all four seasons, racking up a combined 2,314 points at nearly 20 points per game.

As a true freshman, Johnson showed similar ability in limited action at Pitt under head coach Jamie Dixon last season.

Averaging 14 minutes a game, Johnson appeared in all 39 contests for the Panthers, averaging 4.2 points and 1.2 assists, knocking down 33 3-pointers, hitting double figures twice, and earning a Big East Academic All-Star nod along the way. His 43.5 percent clip from the floor and 38.4 percent from beyond the arc, while coming from a limited sample, would eclipse all of Penn State's current guards averaging more than 4 minutes a game in Big Ten play this season.

As a team, the Nittany Lions are shooting just 24.8 percent from 3-point land and just 36.1 percent from the floor against Big Ten competition.

"Whatever Coach Chambers needs, if he needs me to go out there and play D, that's what I'm going to do," Johnson said. "If he needs me to score the ball, obviously, I can score the basketball, so, it's just whatever Coach Chambers is asking of me. I can do it.

"I like to mix it up. I can shoot the ball. I can get in the paint and attack and, once my offense is going, I can get my teammates involved. I like getting other guys involved as well. I just like to mix it up."

Not a superb defender or rebounder, Johnson was supplanted by true freshman James Robinson on Dixon's defensive-minded squad early last November, ultimately leading to a public rebuttal of Dixon on Twitter and, eventually, the transfer to Penn State in December. Reports suggested that Dixon attempted salvage the situation and change Johnson's mind but, his mind already made up, the two sides split amicably.

Since, Johnson has patiently spent time on the Nittany Lions' scout team, working hard against emergency point guard D.J. Newbill and shooter Jermaine Marshall while settling into his new life at University Park. The early reviews from Johnson are that he "loves" his new teammates and coaches.

The attitude has served him well, and in turn, a team that continues to fight for small successes as the season continues, on and off the hardwood.

"He comes in with a great confidence. He's very confident in himself and his ability," Chambers said. "He makes our second team really good and really competitive, which is terrific and that's what we needed. We were missing that before he got here.

"That confidence and belief in himself is only going to trickle down to that huge freshman class that we've got coming in, and the younger guys, because he's been through it. He was in the Big East. He played at Pitt. He's been through the battles, he's been on the road, he's played in tough games. So, he's been there, and that can only help."

Though he's spent time running point for the second team, Johnson is, like Newbill, more of a combo-guard that moves well without the ball and can take advantage of any variety of scoring opportunities.

On a team that returns Frazier, Newbill, and Marshall, while adding true freshman Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward next season, Johnson's ability to make an immediate impact when he becomes eligible in December remains unknown. Until then, though, Johnson plans to continue to work hard for himself and his teammates.

"His mentality, his approach… he wants to be a player and, for us, if he can bring some guys along, you get them in the gym and you get them better," Chambers said. "Perfect. It just makes us a lot deeper at the guard spot next year."


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