Fans who wanted to know when something positive was happening for UNLV during Saturday night’s opening win over Florida A&M didn’t really need to watch the action.
Point guard Jordan Johnson’s emotions offered a joyful narrative.
He raised his arms to indicate shots were going to drop when they had barely left a teammate’s hand. He skipped up the court after setting up a basket with an alley-oop pass. He celebrated after dropping off the ball to a trailing teammate for a fast-break layup.
With every highlight, the senior couldn’t contain his happiness about being back on the floor.
“I just wanted to have fun and make sure my teammates could get involved. That’s my job,” Johnson said of his 10-point, 10-assist performance. “After sitting out last year, it was just so much fun to be back out there. I had to take advantage of that.”
Johnson sat out last season as a redshirt after transferring from Milwaukee, where he played for current UNLV assistant Rob Jeter.
“It was so hard,” Johnson said of watching his team struggle to an 11-win season from the sidelines. “At times, I didn’t even want to be in the gym. But I stayed at it and kept working on my shot and working to get stronger and it’s all paying off now.”
The 5-foot-11-inch native of Waukegan, Illinois, averaged 12.5 points and 8.1 assists in his lone year at Milwaukee, earning second-team All-Horizon League honors.
He has even higher hopes for this season as he prepares to lead UNLV (1-0) into a Wednesday game against Prairie View A&M at Thomas & Mack Center.
Johnson wants to finish among the top three in the nation in assists, something he did at Milwaukee, where he was second in total assists and per-game average, and make the All-Mountain West team and all-defensive team.
He also hopes to help the Rebels return to the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV coach Marvin Menzies knows Johnson will play a huge role if the team is to achieve that goal.
“I thought he did a really good job (on Saturday),” Menzies said. “It’s a small sample size, but we’re anticipating a good showing by him and I think he gave the fans a taste of that and he’ll give them more if he just stays the course.”
Perhaps the most important number from the opener was Johnson committed just one turnover while pushing the pace as the Rebels eclipsed 100 points.
Johnson had plenty of reason to celebrate.
“Jordan is one of the best guards I’ve ever played with,” freshman Tervell Beck said. “He’s just so smart and it seems like he always makes the right decision with the ball. He just makes things happen for us and he has fun while he’s doing it. He’s a leader on the team so whatever he does, we do. We’re following him.”
Even when he’s dancing and celebrating, something Menzies didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m that kind of coach,” he said. “I’m a high-energy guy, I’m a positive guy and he understands what I want him to be on the court. I want us to have fun. I want us to get out there and play an entertaining style of basketball the fans will enjoy so it’s good to have some of that. We had the opportunity to let him practice with us all year last year and he’s been chomping at the bit to get out there. It shows that he’s excited.”
Prairie View A&M is in the midst of a 13-game road trip to start the season. The Southwestern Athletic Conference representative lost games at Utah and Oregon, but were within 10 points in both contests at halftime.
The Panthers, who lost 80-62 at UNLV in 2015, did win at Fresno State last year.
Menzies said he has pointed out that result to the team to remind them what could happen if they aren’t focused.
“That was in their media guide. If they beat a Mountain West team, it’s big for those guys,” he said. “We prepare the same we would for anybody. It’s important the kids understand what preparation is whether it’s for a big-name or not, you still have to prepare for your opponents. If you’re not respecting your opponents, you’re probably not respecting the game the way you should.”
Now the hope is the result is similar to the opener. Johnson will have a lot to do with that.
Sophomore forward Djordjije Sljivancanin and freshman forward Ben Coupet Jr. will redshirt this season, Menzies announced Tuesday.