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August 28, 2013

Europe trip another step forward for Purdue point guard





Patrick Baldwin was impressed with Ronnie Johnson's skills while coaching him earlier this month during an exhibition tour through Europe, whether it was the Boilermaker point guard's ability to get to the basket or his seemingly improved jump-shooting.

But the Northwestern assistant coach really liked the sophomore's demeanor during the five-game swing through Belgium and Germany.

"Ronnie was super," said Baldwin, a member of new coach Chris Collins' staff at Northwestern after working with former Purdue assistant Paul Lusk at Missouri State. "Like with all our guys, he was very professional in how he carried himself and you could tell Coach (Matt) Painter's done a great job with him in how he acted and conducted himself with class and all those things.

"He was very respectful and gave everything he had on the floor every minute. I was most impressed with that, even before he even set foot on the floor."

Those things by themselves might represent significant growth for one of the most important players on the Boilermaker roster this season.

As Purdue struggled last season, it was often labeled "immature" by its coach, relying so much on freshmen, including Johnson at perhaps the most important position on the floor, no less.

Now a sophomore, Johnson likely wouldn't dispute that there was growing up he needed to do between the end of last season and the start of this one to come.

Experience alone, he says, has helped him along.

"I have to do a better job of that this year, just carrying my team and being that leader everybody needs," Johnson said after a team workout Tuesday.

"There were times in games where I got my head down and I really can't do that this year. On the court or whatever, I just have to get better with my attitude, my style of play, everything."

Purdue struggled last season, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than half a decade, and Johnson played through the sort of inconsistencies that come with youth. But individually, by most measures, he enjoyed a strong debut, averaging 10.3 points and 4.1 assists as a freshman starter logging 31-plus minutes per game.

"I got a lot from last year," Johnson said. "I just have to bring it into this year and get better."

It started in Europe, where Johnson helped his team win all five of its games vs. respectable competition against overseas professionals.

"If you had to compare, I'd say mid-level Division I basketball," Baldwin said, "but still very competitive, probably much more physical than our guys realized at first."

Stat-keeping was rough, but Johnson averaged roughly 16 points on the trip, including 24 in the first game.

"Ronnie did a good job getting to the basket, which is probably his forté," Baldwin said, "and ran the team well and shot the ball better than probably anyone anticipated. He looked really comfortable on the floor."

Comfort might be one of the stories of Johnson's offseason after everything that was new last season has become more familiar.

"I've just gotten used to everything," Johnson said, "like the running, the shot selection, what my coaches want from me."

Two emphases for Johnson this summer have been fairly obvious ones: 1) to get stronger and 2) to improve his jump-shooting.

To the first point, the 6-foot guard looks noticeably better developed in his arms and upper body than he did a year ago, a special trip to Boston in the spring to work with Goodridge Strength (along with brother Terone Johnson) perhaps getting that ball rolling.

"My body was beat up a lot last year, but it's adapting to it," Johnson said. "The long practices, I wasn't used to it, but after a year of it, I'm pretty used to it now."

With his shooting, Johnson gained some confidence from the mid-range shots that started falling for him late in the season.

But after making just six threes on 36 tries and shooting less than 39 percent overall as a freshman, there was plenty of work to be done this offseason, work Baldwin said seems to have paid off based on his play in Europe.

The most important changes in Johnson, though, might not be as plain to see as when a player is either making shots or he isn't.

It might lie in the very thing that impressed his coach in Europe: His demeanor.

"He came off like he's seen all this before," Baldwin said. "He didn't get rattled out on the floor. Pressure wasn't an obstacle for him and he just looked like a kid who's been through a lot of different situations and seen a lot of different things.

"I'm sure this is going to be another stepping stone for him, to take this experience and carry it with him through this season. He looked very comfortable in this setting."






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