Don’t call Isaiah Johnson by his first name. He prefers ‘‘Big Dog.’’
At 6-foot-10, 285 pounds, the moniker would appear to fit Johnson, a University of Akron freshman center. Add to that he possesses girth and not just height, and those things make for a formidable presence on the basketball court and in the lane specifically.
People have noticed. Big time.
Buzz has surrounded the freshman from Cincinnati. Word is that he’s pressed teammate Pat Forsythe at the position and some have compared him to current NBA pros.
“I came with the mindset that I want to work to play, because I know it’s a new situation, new scenario and everything. I wanted to play,” Johnson said after practice Monday. “I asked the coaches before I came what can I do and they said you can drop weight and get in shape. So I came in with that mindset. I came in, got some extra work in just to get on the court.”
To that end, he has dropped 15 pounds, he said, and turned much of that baby fat that sticks with most people well into their teens into muscle. The frame is as solid as the handshake that he uses to greet people.
“It’s helped a lot. It’s helped especially with my knees,” he said of the physical changes. “There’s not as much pain anymore, and I’m able to do more on the court.”
It has improved his lateral movement and allowed him to get in front of defenders, he said. More important, it plays into his offensive game.
“Offensively, I’m a real big body, so I use that to my advantage whether it’s rebounding offensively or taking up space,” he said. “I have quick moves, but I like to kind of go slow in case I draw the double team so I can get the pass out. I just try to go with the flow of the game.”
It’s that added muscle that should benefit him and the Zips. Johnson averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds at Walnut Hills High School. Coach Ricardo Hill loved him as a player, referring to him as “old school.”
“He’s one of the true centers in all of college basketball; you can throw it in to him and he’s going to be a threat,” he said.
He can play with his back to the basket, but also has the ability to drop a shot in from the outside, Hill said.
Playing with good shooters, who have to be accounted for by defenses, will allow Johnson to inflict damage offensively, Hill said.
However, it’s his desire to win that could help UA just as much. Hill said his former standout player will do whatever necessary to win.
“If that means diving on the floor for a guy of his frame and his size, he will dive on the floor,” he said. “Last year for us to get to the Final Four, he made a defensive play at half court to cause a turnover.”
Johnson displayed some of that in the Zips’ exhibition game against Bluffton on Friday, when he could be seen on the floor scrapping for balls as if they were fumbles in a football game.
That tenacity is the reason why the compliments have come. Although his debut Friday wasn’t an overwhelming success (four points, five rebounds and four blocks in 18 minutes) offensively, coach Keith Dambrot still found something to praise in the effort.
“He can play way better than he played tonight,” Dambrot said. “He missed some around the rim that normally he isn’t going to miss. I think he’s a good player. I thought he played pretty good overall defensively especially after the first time he went in.”
More than a few people thought that Johnson could end up playing elsewhere even after orally committing to UA, but with center Zeke Marshall’s departure, he sensed opportunity and he didn’t want to redshirt. It probably didn’t hurt that Hill played for Dambrot at Ashland and could offer insight into the Zips’ coach.
“I knew Dambrot, and I knew what kind of coach he was,” Johnson said. “ I knew he was the coach I needed to get me better. I know he’s going to push me hard. I knew he was going to tell me exactly what I need to hear and not just sugarcoat it for me. Sugarcoating things won’t help a player get better.”
And even as Johnson spoke for this interview, Dambrot sugarcoated little, calling him out for his lack of effort during practice Monday.
“Another day like that and that will be the last interview you give for a while,” Dambrot tells him, smiling.
He then takes him aside and asks Johnson if he gave his all during that session. When Johnson agrees that he didn’t, Dambrot reminds him gently and firmly that he always needs his best.
But take note: While doing so, he called him “Big Dog,” not Isaiah.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.