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Purdue ICONS #14: JaJuan Johnson

It is always fun to write about these ICONS whose chapters are still being written. Our own Brian Cardinal added to his profile last night with an NBA championship in which he showed more hard work, gumption, and fortitude than a certain superstar. I am sure that if I did this poll all over again Cardinal would probably rate higher than his very respectable #20 spot.

Of course, another player is waiting for the next chapter to be written in just 10 days. JaJuan Johnson just finished one of the most memorable careers in Purdue basketball history. He is the first consensus All-American in 17 years, one of the top ten scorers ever at Purdue, and a fan favorite that will likely be selected by a lucky team in the upcoming NBA Draft. With 225 votes he rates as the #14 Purdue ICON, and this profile pretty much doubles as a draft profile for hungry NBA teams out there.

High School career

JJ had probably the least decorated high school career of the four Baby Boilers. Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin were hot commodities on the AAU circuit that had successful runs with Valparaiso (even if a certain journalist though Hummel would be a role player at best). E`Twaun Moore was the dynamic scorer that led East Chicago Central to a state championship, besting Valparaiso (with Hummel and Martin) and North Central (with Eric Gordon) along the way. JJ was a top 50 recruit, but he only played varsity for his final two years at Franklin Central.

A lot of JJ's rating was based on potential. That potential was that he was 6'10", giving him an advantage over a lot of other players. He was a lanky forward in high school, averaging 20.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.1 blocks per game as a senior with sophomore teammate Patrick Bade. The Flashes went 24-3 with JJ as a senior, losing only to Waukesha Catholic from Wisconsin, Pike, and North Central in the regional final. In the morning game of that regional they officially ended Lawrence North's reign as three-time state champions, though Greg Oden and Mike Conley were long gone by then.

Franklin Central did win the prestigious Marion County Tournament that season, an event usually dominated by powers Pike, North Central, and Lawrence North. The Flashes defeated Pike 56-50 in the final as part of a 12-game winning streak. Had North Central not defeated Franklin Central in the regional final it is possible E'Twaun would have played against four future teammates during his tournament run. As it was, Terone Johnson was a freshman on North Central's JV.

Purdue career

JJ's time will always be remembered as the reign of the Baby Boilers. It is an era that truly revived Purdue basketball as a national contender, even if it was frustrating in that we never advanced beyond a Sweet 16 and had two second place Big Ten finishes to go with a split title. In all of that, JJ was part of the heart. As a freshman he was the only Baby Boiler that didn't become a regular starter, instead backing up Nemanja Calasan as our post presence. He averaged just over 16 minutes per game off the bench and 5.4 points as we saw flashes of his potential. We knew him to be a skinny, athletic dunker that could throw down better than anyone else. His leaping ability was unparalleled, allowing him to block a shot per game. His rebounding numbers were low, but we salivated over the future when he would gain weight and be able to dominate the Big Ten.

Among his highlights that year were a 12-point debut in the season's first game against Bethune-Cookman. He blocked four shots in his Big Ten debut against Michigan, and his 10-point, eight rebound, two block game against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament was a glimpse of the future.

That 2007-08 season was so much fun because we exceeded expectations in so many ways. We thought that an NCAA tournament berth and maybe a round 1 victory would be a good showing for such a young bunch, especially after losing Carl Landry and David Teague. Instead, the Baby Boilers recovered from the stink of the Wofford loss and damn near won the Big Ten as freshmen. They were the only team to beat Wisconsin in league play, and the only losses were at Michigan State (with an ill Robbie Hummel not playing), at Ohio State (in overtime), and at Indiana in Kelvin Sampson's final game.

With JJ moving into the starting lineup the next year we all expected great things.  He would be more built with a summer in the weight room. We had a top 10 ranking, Duke was coming to Mackey in the most highly anticipated regular season game in Purdue history, and we felt we were a Final Four threat immediately. As it turned out, the 2008-09 season was one where we took a slight step back because we weren't quite ready. Blake Griffin was allowed to shoot 2,954 free throws to our five in an overtime loss to Oklahoma during the preseason NIT final. Duke flat out pantsed us in our own place, and suddenly things weren't as exciting.

The Big Ten race didn't go well, either. Illinois and Penn State upset us to start 0-2. Losses at Illinois and Ohio State later on set us further back. We finished a disappointing 11-7 league play against a tough conference that sent seven teams to the dance. Worst of all, Mackey Arena was no longer a fortress as we lost to Illinois and Northwestern at home. We did recover to win a Big Ten Tournament Championship and reach the Sweet 16.

JJ had a breakout season, improving his average to 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in his new starting role. He swatted shots like a volleyball all over the place, denying 2.1 per game and "influencing" a number of others. He showcased an excellent midrange jumper that was unblockable all while continuing to abuse rims with thunderdunks all over the league. Against Northwestern on January 15th he blocked an astounding seven shots while scoring 13 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

Once again, he saved his best for the tournament. He had 22 points and five rebounds against Washington during a virtual second round road game. His four blocks were key, as two came on one defensive possession late as we looked to close the game out. JJ was also a danger at the free throw line, showing fantastic consistency for a big man. He shot neatly 74% from the line during this season, and over 80% this past year.

That set up 2009-10 as the perfect year to break the Final Four drought. It was in Indianapolis, we were a seasoned team after finally making the Sweet 16 before falling to a deeper, older UConn team. We have even recovered nicely from the defection of the traitor (Scott Martin). Lewis Jackson was going to run the show, JJ was going to have help with Patrick Bade and Sandi Marcius down low, and we were going to dominate.

For three months we did just that. Marcius never played (foot injury) LewJack didn't play until nearly the midpoint of the Big Ten season, but it didn't matter. We started 14-0 and looked incredible in doing so. JJ thoroughly dominated West Virginia (a Final Four team) during a New Year's Day game at Mackey. He was dunking on people and blocking shots with impunity. If you ventured within five feet of the basket he swatted you away. That game against the Mountaineers was his NBA audition tape, as he went for 15-10-4 and they had no answer to him. A minor three game losing streak at Wisconsin (where no one wins three times in a row), at home against Ohio State (a collapse) and at Northwestern (terrible game by all) was no concern. We went to Ohio State and Michigan State and smacked both the Spartans and Buckeyes around. In late February we were 24-3, 13-3 in the Big Ten and in front by ourselves. We were cruising toward a #1 seed and playing as well as any Purdue team I can remember. It wasn't even that we were winning. We were going on the road in the conference and ripping the hearts out of opponents Temple of Doom-style within the first 10 minutes of the game.

February 24, 2010

I just spent the last few minutes eagerly writing the above paragraphs. They were such fun times to be a Purdue fan. Then I got to this date, and that fateful night at the Barn in Minnesota. I had to stop and I practically got tears in my eyes. It just doesn't seem fair what happened after that. With The Fumble at least we can say that it was a mistake at the absolute worst time. It derailed all our momentum and things went south for a number of factors.

This was different though. The effort both before and after were the same. Leading up to the Fumble we let off the gas by giving up that quick Wisconsin TD drive. That wasn't the case here. Early in that Minnesota game we were once again crushing a good team on its home floor. Then, at 9:07pm ET, it happened. One. Bad. Step. It wasn't Rob's fault, or JJ's, or E`Twaun's, or anyone on Minnesota's roster. One bad step derailed everything, costing at least one National title. I am sure of it. We just lost that one, final piece that gives us a better seed in the tournament and the calming influence we needed. If Rob is healthy we're a #1 seed in 2010 easily and we have a simpler path to the Final Four.

We will always wonder how everything turns out if Rob doesn't get hurt. In a way, it was a small blessing for JJ because it allowed him to have a fantastic senior season totally in the spotlight. He agreed to come back after flirting with the draft following the 2010 season because he had unfinished business with Rob and Smooge. I famously declared it was our first step towards the 2011 National title. I said all along we were going to win this one because it was the perfect storm of experience, depth, talent, and key backups in the right spot. Even after Rob went down again, it still felt right.

As it was, JJ had a banner year, winning Big Ten Player of the Year, Consensus All-America honors, and he was virtually unstoppable. He added the three-point shot to his arsenal and no one had an answer for him. He averaged 20.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game all while shooting 80% from the line, nearly 50% from the floor and 30% from three. Folks, you just don't have a much better senior season than that.

He even had highlight moments, like his game-winner against Penn State. Even in defeat he was dominant, scoring more than 22 points in all of our losses except the one against Richmond. He and Smooge dragged us into the discussion for a #1 seed and another Big Ten title with one of the best February runs I have ever seen. On senior night against Illinois he and E`Twaun completed an undefeated season in Mackey Arena and a career that saw them lose only four times in Big Ten play on Keady court. Even without Rob we were 25-5, 14-3, and still had a chance to win the Big Ten with Ohio State.

I really don't know what happened after that. If you had played a tape of the National Championship game between Connecticut and Butler, where the  Huskies were awful and butler was worse, and told me we didn't even come close to making it without seeing any other NCAA Tournament game I would have thought that some tragedy befell the rest of college basketball. On March 1st everything looked great. 19 days and a 1-3 run through our next four games, it was all over.

I still don't know what happened. Something fell apart behind the scenes other than the Kelsey Barlow suspension in those 19 days, but we'll never know what. We just weren't the same team, and that is why it was such a dissatisfying ending to a great career.

NBA chances

So now JJ heads to the draft in a week and a half, probably as a mid-to-late first round pick. I think this is perfect for him because it means he'll go to an established playoff team looking to add him as a piece instead of a lottery team looking for him to turn a franchise around. He knows all about playing within the fold of a team in order to achieve a greater goal. The hometown Pacers have looked at him, but could you see him filling a very nice role on a Dallas Mavericks team that just won the title? I could. They are picking 26th by the way.

JJ brings a nice blend of athleticism, big game chops, experience, and a solid mid-range jumper to the league. Unlike a one-and-done, teams know he has immediate maturity. He's used to playing in tough arenas and winning, as he won in every Big Ten venue during his career. I think he will go somewhere between the Pacers at #15 and the Mavs at #26.

It is with great honor that we send JJ to the NBA too. He is one of the most decorated players in school history. He is an ICON with the older generation of fans like myself and the current number of students. I admit, it will be very strange going to Mackey next year and not seeing #25 throwing down thunderdunks. We are losing a truly special player in him.

Thank you, JJ.