The University of Utah Runnin’ Utes team features a unique blend of youthful talent and veteran leadership that should allow for a successful season battling with the likes of the Pac-12 conference. With the impressive, touted incoming class and Sedrick Barefield’s return, the presence of junior center Jayce Johnson has been shadowed. Johnson, with his 7-foot height and tough, rugged style of play will patrol the paint and captain the athletic defense.
Johnson, son of Jay and Venise Johnson from Santa Monica, California, enrolled at the U in the winter of the 2015-2016 season. Jayce played at Santa Monica High School and for Earl Watson Elite as an AAU player. Highly recruited as a prospect, Jayce signed with Utah, enrolling early. Ranked in the Under Armour top 100 and 11th among centers by ESPN, Jayce ended up redshirting, preserving an additional year of eligibility where he would be able to contribute to the team after gaining experience practicing against current San Antonio Spur Jakob Poeltl, who would go on to be selected ninth in the NBA draft at the conclusion of that season. Now, entering his third season of actual play, Johnson will take on the vital role of the center on a traditionally physical team as coached by Larry Krystkowiak.
During the past two seasons has played, Johnson gained experience, preparing himself for the bigger and brighter lights as a leader on the team for the two eligible seasons that he has remaining. As a redshirt freshman, Johnson played in all 32 games and started in six of them, averaging 12.3 minutes per contest. In that limited time, he scored an average of four points and grabbed 4.3 rebounds per game. Productive in limited exposure and a defined role as a redshirt freshman, Johnson’s role grew. Along with it, his game grew leaps and bounds.
As a sophomore, Johnson scored 5.5 points and grabbed 5.4 rebounds. Though the numbers don’t leap off the page, his level of play and energy has consistently been recognized, thus drawing him nearly five more minutes of playing time per game than the prior year, even while sharing time with talented and older transfer forwards David Collette and Tyler Rawson.
This year, with less competition for playing time to inhibit him, Johnson will have a far larger statistical impact. He’s always been a very productive player in the limited spurts he’s received. Johnson will anchor the middle of a phenomenal defense, racking up rebounds. Offensively, he should benefit greatly from the return of talented guard Barefield, who will open up space for Johnson to dominate with his array of post moves.
Based on the youth of the current roster, Johnson should see an increase in play time by around 24-28 minutes, and if we project his stats out using his numbers from his sophomore year with the minutes being 28 rather than 17 per game, he would average 9.22 points, nine rebounds and one block per game. These numbers themselves would be sufficient on their own, but this projection would assume stagnation. Johnson has only improved over time. It would be silly to assume that his skills should remain at the same level when the talented southern Californian will have his chance to shine without seasoned veterans starting above him, impeding him from furthering his impact on this season.
This year’s team should be primed to compete in the Pac-12, possessing one of the most talented rosters as well as having most of their contributors battle tested. Perennial powers such as Arizona, Oregon and UCLA lost loads of talent, including number one overall pick DeAndre Ayton, number 15 overall pick Troy Brown and number 23 overall pick Aaron Holiday. With these perennial powers depleted and youthful Utah relying on Johnson’s veteran presence along with his physical and mental maturity, the U will have excellent chances to win the Pac-12.
In order to top the Pac-12, Johnson will be vital. The biggest determining factor could be how he develops as a vocal leader. Manning a tough defensive unit from the center position, Johnson’s role is crucial to the success of the team, and in order to achieve their goals of dominating the Pac-12, Johnson’s leap in leadership and as a player statistically speaking that we expect is crucial.
Many games are determined by extra possessions provided through heart and hustle, both of which the junior provides in excess. In gaining more time on the court, Johnson will look to seal those wins for the Utes through his own hustle and the example he provides for his team. Johnson’s energy, physicality and leadership will greatly influence the promising Utes team’s success this coming season.