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Penn State Hoops’ Puff Johnson’s Maturity & Mentality Remaining Steady Through Struggling Play

At the halfway point of the Penn State men’s basketball season, guard Puff Johnson has seen his fair share of up-and-down moments in his first year in Happy Valley.

Johnson, who spent the first three years of his college career at North Carolina, came to Penn State and joined Mike Rhoades’ squad for his senior season. After struggling to find minutes and success with the Tarheels, the Moon Township native returned to his home state.

Johnson missed the first handful of games of the 2023-24 season due to an injury, which forced him to miss valuable playing time. He eventually debuted against Saint Francis, and in the first game of the ESPN Events Invitational, Johnson scored a season-high 15 points in Penn State’s loss to Texas A&M.

Johnson continued to play spectacularly for the rest of that tournament, which helped propel him into the starting lineup. The move initially was positive for the Nittany Lions, as Johnson performed well in his first couple of games in the starting lineup, including dropping 15 points against Georgia Tech at Madison Square Garden.

“I think he’s just more comfortable in his in his role,” Rhoades said in December. “I also think he’s starting to see and feel where his shots and his drives are coming from. He’s a student of the game, so he’s really trying to do things the right way, and I think you’re seeing that in his results.”

However, when the new year came, Johnson’s performances began to take a hit, and over his next four starts, he totaled just 19 points in 71 minutes played. He was then pulled out of the starting lineup and, in the fantastic win over No. 11 Wisconsin, Johnson struggled and posted a zero-point performance through eight minutes.

It was one of his worst performances of the season. After the win, Penn State traveled to Columbus with a matchup against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and while that game was one of the worst performances of the season for the Nittany Lions, Johnson finally broke out of his slump.

He totaled a team-high 13 points and also grabbed seven rebounds, the second most in a game this season for the senior. However, the biggest takeaway from the entire game was his shot percentage. Johnson shot an impressive five-for-six from the field and three-for-four from three-point land.

Ahead of the matchup against Minnesota, Rhoades discussed Johnson’s struggles and ability to break out of his funk by doing what he does best: approaching the game with a “get better” mindset.

“I think when he’s disappointed in his play, he comes into practice locked in trying to get better,” Rhoades said. “I appreciate that of him. It’s been a tough road for him at times. I think he cares about his teammates and cares about doing things the right way, which is the approach you got to have.”

Simultaneously, Johnson said he’s trying to adjust to the changes that have come his way throughout the season.

“It’s been a year of adjustments and just doing what [Rhoades] needs me to do. Be a team player in whatever aspect that may be and go out there and impact the game in as many ways as possible,” Johnson said. “Just being aggressive and being the player that the coach wants me to be and the player that I want to be.”

While the play recently of Kanye Clary, Ace Baldwin Jr., and Nick Kern Jr. has been great, Johnson being a consistent shooter and doing whatever he needs to help Penn State win is something the Nittany Lions can only benefit from.

“We need him to play aggressively and confidently down the stretch because that gives us a huge bonus,” Rhoades said. “He’s a mature young man. He was raised the right way and is about the right stuff. That’s why I’m glad he’s here with us.”

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About the Author

Matt Brown

Matt is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and minoring in sports studies from Bensalem, Pa. Matt is a huge Philadelphia sports fan and an overall sports fan in general. When not watching sports, you'll find him watching reruns of Community or The Office. To reach him, follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @matt_brown63, or email him at [email protected].

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