Beginning to believe, thanks to Kerron Johnson
It's taken a while for Kerron Johnson to reach this point, but at last the Breakers have the floor leader they always believed they recruited.
Johnson's mid-season maturation into a quality all-round point guard is a big reason the New Zealand club believes it still has a shot at a top-four finish, and a chance for an historic championship four-peat in the Australian NBL.
It's still going to take some doing, with the 8-11 Breakers facing the fourth-placed Kings (9-9) in Sydney tonight in a matchup with massive playoff ramifications. But coach Dean Vickerman and his players crossed the Tasman yesterday confident of taking another step in the right direction.
Johnson's play has been a big part of the Breakers' revival. At 23, the young man from Belmont University is on his first professional assignment in his first stint living outside the United States. He admits it's been a process that's required a lot of adjustments.
"I wanted to come to a club who would allow me go through that process," Johnson said. "You're kind of tossed in the fire with all the pre-season expectations, but this club has been great about helping me through it, teaching me through it, and it's only going to make me a better player.
"I really feel at the point where I can control the team, and put people in the right spots. I now know everybody's skills well enough to put them in a position to be successful.
"I've enjoyed it, as much as it's been a challenge, as much as it's been stressful, and as much as we've been through some hard times. I'm enjoying the challenge of exploring this part of my game. Most players at this age, on their rookie assignment, don't get this type of experience."
The last two games suggest Johnson has figured things out, and gone to a new level. For the year his numbers are solid (14ppg, 3.7apg, 3.1rpg, 1.3spg), but he had a team-high 21 points in the 106-101 victory over Wollongong, then 17 points, seven boards and three assists in the 105-87 home win over the Kings.
Vickerman said his point guard's step up in productivity is a result of him growing his understanding of his team, the opposition and the league.
"As he's grown and built over time, we're seeing his skillset emerge, and now he knows how to get everyone a shot at the right time, and when it's best for him to look for his own opportunities."
Johnson feels good about his game going in against a team that had few answers to his penetration last week in Auckland.
"It's reaching the point I've been waiting to get to. The confidence is coming back, and I'm just in a really good groove right now. Things are clicking at both ends, and the coaches are doing a great job putting me on the floor when I can keep my pace and rhythm going."
Which brings us to tonight in Sydney. With CJ Bruton and Daryl Corletto fit to play their part, Johnson reckons the Breakers are on a roll that will take some stopping.
"We're playing as well as we've played all year, and that's the experience on this team, and the hunger on this team. That was a big win last week and I think we kind of sent a message to let ‘em know we're going to finish this season as best we can."
The Breakers have almost no margin for error, and can expect a fierce Kings response tonight. But with Johnson pointing the way forward, they once again have their sights on the promised land. Fairfax NZ