AUBURN, Ala. — Even sitting behind a microphone at a postgame press conference, Ronnie Johnson is soft spoken.
The Auburn graduate transfer carefully mulls his answers to the questions he’s asked. His explanations aren’t drawn out. Yet during the brief time he’s spent talking to reporters this season, Johnson has shown the experience he’s brought to Bruce Pearl’s team.
Johnson’s minutes on the hardwood have been similarly inconspicuous. A fan who gets up to visit a concession stand could very well miss the moment Johnson strikes.
Whether it’s with a stealthy drive or a crisp assist (or combination of the two), the backup point guard quietly has created some of the loudest applause in Auburn Arena. More importantly, he’s helped the Tigers earn victories.
“I kind of know the ins and outs of what it takes to win,” Johnson said. “I try to bring that aspect of my game and try to help our team come out with wins, whatever it might be, defense or rebounding or assisting other people, even scoring sometimes. I just think that I do what the team needs the most.”
The contributions will continue to be a factor as Auburn grinds through SEC play. In close games against familiar foes, Johnson will need to be a difference-maker for the Tigers to have success.
Around the block
Before arriving on the Plains, Johnson played two seasons at Purdue and one year at Houston.
He started 65 games for the Boilermakers, averaging 10.3 points and then 10.8 points per game. As a junior, Johnson scored 9.4 points and added 2.9 assists per game, helping the Cougars reach the first round of the NIT.
His role hasn’t been as defined through Auburn’s last 18 games. But even playing behind true freshman Jared Harper, Johnson has been no less significant.
“When I go to the bench with Ronnie I don’t drop off in any way, shape or form,” Pearl said. “In some ways because he’s actually got a stronger assist-turnover ratio, maybe even better, he gets other guys involved and so it’s a good thing to have two really good point guards.”
Three games into the schedule, Johnson scored his 1,000th career point (on a season-high 13-point night) in Auburn’s win over Eastern Kentucky. After the game Pearl praised the 6-foot, 180-pound guard’s defensive efforts and scrappiness. Pearl predicted Johnson would win games for the Tigers.
About two weeks later, when Auburn traveled to Birmingham and encountered its first truly hostile road environment, it was Danjel Purifoy who voiced his appreciation for Johnson.
“Ronnie is a big player, and the last couple of games, he helped us get a W,” the freshman forward said. “When we need him, he shows up.”
Still, the numbers Johnson has recorded since the first months of action might not immediately stand out on stat sheet.
But without his 10 points against USC Upstate or his 5 assists in Auburn’s 76-74 win over Mercer?
The Tigers likely wouldn’t have had one of their best starts in recent history (10-2 for the first time in over a decade).
Subtract his 7.2 points from Auburn’s first 6 SEC games and the Tigers, who lost Purifoy to an ankle injury on Jan. 7, could be winless in conference rather than 2-4 (the Tigers beat Missouri by 5 and LSU by 4).
Perhaps more important than experience and playmaking, Johnson enhances communication of the youngest team Pearl has ever coached.
On the floor and away from it, Johnson chats with Harper and Tigers leading scorer Mustapha Heron (15.9 points per game).
The 23-year-old established chemistry with Anfernee McLemore as the freshman forward has split time between the four and five spots. Johnson’s also tried to help 18-year-old Austin Wiley acclimate to college ball.
“I talk to them a lot and try to get them comfortable in the game and even before the game,” Johnson said. “Give them little pep talks and just when I’m out there on the court with them, just try to keep them making the right plays, making winning plays.”
There have been several moments this season where Johnson’s experience has provided a calming presence — consciously and subconsciously — for this untested Auburn team.
On occasion his confidence has been specific, like when a group who hadn’t played in many large venues made the program’s first appearance in Madison Square Garden.
Johnson mentioned he’d played in the historic arena before. In 2012, he took Purdue’s last regulation shot in a game the Boilermakers eventually lost in overtime to Villanova.
Other times, like during Auburn’s wins against Oklahoma and at UConn, Johnson offered more general insight.
“I tell them about just the away games period,” Johnson said. “How good of a feeling it is to go in and beat another team and just have the whole crowd silent. When it’s you and the team there celebrating against everyone else.”
Nonetheless, never wanting to force plays or personal relationships, Johnson has remained thoughtful.
The middle brother
Johnson didn’t just roll into his first workout or scrimmage and start barking out orders. As a veteran, he understood he was stepping into a strange position.
Fortunately, Johnson’s family pecking order provided him an advantage as a new guy in town.
He’d learned how to be a vocal leader while playing alongside his older brother Terone at Purdue. As an underclassmen, Johnson kept his head down and tried to lead by example, mostly concentrating on his “end of the bargain.”
To his younger brother Ty’Riek, however, Johnson willingly adopted a more active role, dropping wisdom when it felt warranted.
Because of his relationships with his brothers, Johnson knew there would be times where he’d take a backseat even as a proven player.
“I think sometimes it’s the perfect time to say something about whatever it might be,” Johnson said. “I just let the situation tell me whether or not I should do something about it. I am a guy with experience, but then again (there are) some guys who’ve been here and some guys who coaches may tell them to do certain stuff and I don’t know, so I just pick and choose moments.”
Most recently, Johnson continued a run sparked by Harper in Auburn’s 78-74 takedown of LSU on Wednesday night. It was Pearl’s momentous 500th career win.
A lasting impression
With at least 13 games remaining, there are plenty of instances left for Johnson to keep making his mark on Pearl’s ascending program.
As Auburn continues fighting for higher SEC status, Johnson will continue to be looked to as a leader. In some cases, he’ll be asked or forced to take a commanding role.
“Ronnie is a key player for us because at any time he can jump up and put the 15 points, 4 assist night on you,” Pearl said. “I expect more from Ronnie and I think Ronnie, defensively can give us even more. He’s played at Purdue, played at Houston, played for some great defensive coaches and he can have even greater impact when he’s out there on the floor.”
He’s going to keep bringing intangibles. If Johnson’s existence within college hoops has taught him anything it’s that shifts occur in a short span. If anyone’s morale or belief starts to fade, Johnson plans to be there to lift up his teammates.
“Just keep on having faith,” Johnson said. “We can go down 1-3 right now, but we can easily turn it around so I just try to keep people’s faith up and keep them motivated. Just (talk) about playing hard and about little stuff like transition defense, just little stuff like that that will help us go a long way.”
Johnson isn’t going to stress about leaving a legacy in his short time left at Auburn, but he’s cherishing his chance to influence the future of his teammates and the program.
“I really like that,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to control what I can control while I’m here and everything will play out like it’s supposed to.”