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Utah big man Jayce Johnson has slowed down in his sophomore season — and that’s a good thing

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes forward Jayce Johnson (34) blocks a shot by Prairie View A&M Panthers guard Avery Lomax (2) as University of Utah hosts Prairie View A&M, NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday December 17, 2016.

Utah center Jayce Johnson has embraced the virtues of the tortoise.

After being in such a hurry to start playing college basketball and then spending his first season of on-court action needlessly trying to play at break-neck speed, Johnson realizes that slow and steady may ultimately be his winning formula.

Johnson, a 7-foot 235-pound sophomore, sat out the first two games of this season due to an ankle injury, but he played in Thursday’s win over Missouri. He had to knock off some rust after missing more than a week of practice on top of the two games, but he scored 10 points and hauled in five rebounds to go along with a pair of blocks in 15 minutes.

Johnson figures to be a significant factor in the frontcourt this week as the Utes head to Las Vegas to participate in the MGM Resorts Main Event at T-Mobile Arena. The Utes will open up against Ole Miss (3-0) on Monday at 10:30 p.m. MST, and they’ll play either Rice or UNLV on Wednesday night.

“The biggest thing I took from last year was, first off, I feel like I was out of shape,” Johnson said prior to the start of this season. “I need to be more in shape. This summer I was running my ... I want to say a-word, but I was running as hard as I could. I had to get my conditioning and my stamina up. That was one thing.”

Johnson graduated high school early and enrolled at Utah in January 2016. Because of that Johnson did not play his senior season of high school after attending four schools in four years (including one season at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada). While he was technically a redshirt freshman last season, Johnson still had plenty of adjustments to make and lessons to learn.

“Last year I tried to make things too fast, and the game is supposed to be fun,” Johnson said. “I’m supposed to take my time. When I’m out there now, I’m slowing down and looking for angles in different sports and the game has slowed down from last year for me.”

Asked if he thought that his early entry to Utah created additional pressure and contributed to things moving too fast on the court last season, Johnson paused pensively for a moment and acknowledged that could have been a factor, but he quickly added, “But I don’t regret any decisions because everything happens for a reason. I’m here right now for a reason.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Jayce Johnson (34) during the Utah men's and women's basketball teams, Night with the Utes, Tuesday, Oct. 17, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

OLE MISS VS. UTAH<br>Location T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nev.<br>Tipoff • Monday, 10:30 p.m. MT<br>Radio • 700 AM.<br>TV • AT&T SportsNet<br>Records • Ole Miss 3-0, Utah 3-0.<br> Series history Utes lead 1-0.<br> Last meeting • Utes won 83-72 on Nov. 21, 2008, in Dayton Beach, Fla.<br>About the Rebels • Ole Miss is coming off of a 77-72 win at home against Georgia State on Friday. Junior guard Terence Davis lead the way with 24 points, while Markel Crawford added 15 points. … Davis, a 6-foot-4 second-year starter, has averaged 20.3 points per game this season and shot 53 percent from the floor. He’s made 42 percent of his 3-point attempts. Deandre Burnett has averaged 13.7 ppg off the bench, and he also has a team-high nine assists. The team’s leading rebounder is a 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior forward Marcanvis Hymon, has averaged 9.0 rebounds per game through three games. … Davis and Burnett were preseason All-SEC selections. Despite returning four starters from last year’s team which went 22-14, Ole Miss got picked to finish 10th in the preseason media poll.<br>About the Utes • Utah is coming off of a 77-59 win against Missouri in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Five players scored 10 points or more for Utah. Senior center David Collette scored a game-high 17 points, while freshman forward Donnie Tillman recorded his first career double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench. … Through three games, Collette leads the team in scoring with an average of 14 points per game, while junior guard Sedrick Barefield has averaged 13.5 ppg (two games), Tyler Rawson 12.7 ppg and Gabe Bealer 11 ppg. Bealer has gone 9-of-14 on 3-pointers. Rawson has averaged a team-best 7.0 rebounds per game. … Utah has shot 49 percent overall and 35 percent from 3-point range as a team through its first three games which all came at home.

Utes senior center David Collette has seen Johnson’s progress first-hand, and he recognizes Johnson’s early growing pains from his own adjustment period coming out of high school.

I think [it’s] kind of how I felt as a freshman going in, the game seems to kind of speed up for you and everything is so fast,” Collette said. “I kind of feel like that’s how he was last year. Over the course of this year and just getting that experience under his belt from last year, he’s a whole different player. He plays slow and under control. I think he’s smarter and just has that experience in him. He’s come a long way. He’s going to be a dang good player for us this year.”

Collette said that a lot of times people confuse playing hard with playing fast, which can lead to playing faster than you need to. When Collette describes of Johnson slowing down, he points to Johnson’s improved patience on the block instead of forcing up a quick shot and Johnson now seeing guys on the floor and being able to make passes he didn’t before.

“That’s what I mean when I talk about slow for him, just being able to kind of relax a little bit and realize he doesn’t have to score everything or make a decision right away,” Collette said.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said prior to the ankle sprain Johnson looked better than he had since he joined the program. While Krystkowiak also pointed to Johnson getting stronger and playing much more under control this season, the biggest difference he’s seen in his sophomore center has simply been the natural progression that comes with time.

“I just think he’s not a freshman anymore,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s not unusual for a guy to come in as a young player and there’s a lot to learns and a thrown at you, not just on the basketball court but off the court and all the expectations and responsibilities that you have as a Division I athlete. Sometimes that’s a little bit of an overload. Maybe that’s what he faced. I’ve seen that a lot with freshman, and then you get your sea legs under you and you realize kind of what to expect.”

JAYCE JOHNSON<br>Height: 7 feet<br>Weight: 235 pounds<br>Class: Sophomore<br>Position: Center<br>Hometown: Mission Viejo, Calif.<br>High school: He spent one season apiece at Mater Dei (Calif.), JSerra (Calif.), and Findlay Prep (Nev.). He attended Santa Monica High as a senior prior to graduating early to come to Utah. … The No. 14 center in his recruiting class according to ESPN.com and one of the Top 100 at the Under Armour All-America camp. ... Johnson came into the Utah program highly-touted as a traditional big man with the requisite size, ability to score around the basket and knack for rebounding.<br>At Utah: Enrolled in January 2016 and joined the basketball program. He sat out the semester as a redshirt. … Johnson averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and shot 57 percent from the floor as a freshman in 2016-17. He played an average of 12.3 minutes per game. … His best performance came when he scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against Oregon. He was one of four players who played in all 32 games for the Utes last season.

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