South Carolina Basketball: Why Meechie Johnson deserves his flowers

Meechie Johnson has been a stabilizing force for South Carolina basketball this season, and he's deserving of a look from NBA teams after the year concludes.

South Carolina basketball star Meechie Johnson
South Carolina basketball star Meechie Johnson / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages

South Carolina basketball is 10-1, but there’s reason to think the team wouldn’t be at the double-digit win mark without shooting guard Meechie Johnson. After averaging just 3.2 PPG in 13.0 MPG in two seasons with Ohio State, Johnson has found a niche at Carolina.

He almost quadrupled his previous career PPG average with Ohio State when he averaged 12.7 PPG in a non-traditional PG role last year in his first year with the Gamecocks, and now the 6’2 guard is averaging 18.3 PPG at the shooting guard position, 3rd in the SEC this season. What’s happened this year that’s allowed Johnson to turn into an All-SEC type of performer? Plenty. 

For one, Meechie Johnson has become the focal point of the offense. His usage rates, from his first year at Ohio State to his first year at South Carolina, are as follows: 13.6%, 19.3%, 23.8%. This season, through 11 games, Johnson’s usage rate is up to 30.7%, 4th in the SEC. Getting the ball in Johnson’s hands has resulted in the Gamecocks scoring points at a higher rate (64.8 PPG in non-conference games last season as opposed to 74.3 PPG this year) and better results in the win column. 

Another of the reasons, however, that Johnson has been so effective with the ball in his hands, has been new addition PG Ta’Lon Cooper’s presence on the court.

Johnson’s scoring numbers haven’t been necessarily a result of Cooper’s assists (Cooper has found Johnson on just 10 assists this year, less than one per game) but more so a result of Cooper providing off-ball offensive spacing. With Cooper handling the PG1 role for 31.9 MPG, Johnson doesn’t have to be forced into a makeshift point guard role, and instead can thrive in a more natural shooting guard role in which he can showcase his strengths. 

Cooper can shoot (44.1 3PT%) and distribute (4.6 APG), which means defenders need to keep an eye on him on the perimeter or inside, which can lead to a lost focus on Johnson defensively for the opponent, or a focus that’s still there but one that Johnson is able to exploit offensively. Assisted or unassisted, Johnson takes a large share (22.3%) of the Gamecocks’ shot attempts, and that’s not a bad thing. 

His share of the Gamecock free throw attempts is even higher at 28.9%, and that’s been helping his point per game numbers as well. Against Winthrop and Charleston Southern, Meechie went a combined 10-32 from the field, not his best games but every shooter has games like that. Johnson still scored 15 against Charleston Southern and 20 against Winthrop because he was a combined 13-13 from the free-throw line. That’s an additional 13 points to add to Johnson’s (and the Gamecocks’) total, which was additionally valuable considering the two games were won by a combined 14 points. 

Getting to the free-throw line isn’t just a result of throwing one’s body into the paint, it’s really an art form. It takes either getting a step of separation on a defender, drawing a defender in to contest a pump fake, or overall just have a bit more offensive discipline than the defender has defensive discipline. Meechie Johnson has drawn 1.7 shooting fouls per game, the most on the team and ranking in the 91st percentile nationally.

Despite a career FT% of 75.5%, he’s shooting an absurd 96.6% from the line over his past 6 games with a 29-30 total from the line. If Johnson can combine his recent sky-high free-throw shooting with the type of live-shooting efficiency he showcased against Clemson, Notre Dame, George Washington, and DePaul, the sky's the limit. 

For a 6’2 guard, Johnson’s also quite valuable as a rebounder. He’s 2nd on the team in RPG with 4.3 per game, and it’s clear that his tenacity on the offensive end extends to the other end of the court. Defensively, Johnson’s marks are some of the best in his career. Through his first three seasons, he posted a defensive win share total of 0.8. In 11 games this season, he’s already compiled 0.6 defensive win shares, a mark that ranks first on the team. His steal percentage of 2.2% is second on the team behind Zachary Davis, an improvement from his 1.4% steal rate last year.

The analytics love Meechie Johnson, but this isn’t a case of “average player propped up by analytics” or anything like that. Meechie Johnson is just a really good ballplayer.

His box plus/minus is 9.3, almost double the next-highest Gamecock, and 7th overall in the SEC, ahead of players like Wade Taylor IV, Johni Broome, Dalton Knecht, Aaron Estrada, and Rob Dillingham. His PER (player efficiency rating, a “catch-all” metric) of 25.5 is best on the team and 6th-best in the conference, while his offensive win shares, offensive box plus/minus, and win shares/40 minutes marks are all top-6 in the conference as well. 

One of the best aspects of Johnson’s improvement has been an improved efficiency in less minutes. Last season, Meechie Johnson averaged 33.3 MPG, a top-5 mark in the SEC, while scoring 12.7 PPG. This year, his minutes have fallen slightly to 28.6 MPG but his FG% has risen from 36.1% to 45.8%, and his 3PT% has risen from 32.7% to 36.9%.

Other shooting efficiencies, such as eFG% and TS%, have also risen considerably and are either career-high marks or close to being so. He’s not just scoring with the ball in his hands, he’s also taking care of it. Despite turnover percentages of 19.3%, 21.3%, and 15.8% in his first three seasons, Johnson now has the 2nd-lowest turnover percentage on the team (behind Collin Murray-Boyles) with an 8.1% mark, almost half of his rate last year. 

Is Meechie Johnson an NBA prospect? He tested the waters last year but made a wise decision to come back. As a 6’2 guard, he’d likely have to move over to the PG position in the association, but he wasn’t bad when pressed into that role last year. Yes, naturally, he’s a shooting guard, but it would be difficult for a shooting guard of his height to surpass expectations in the NBA.

Seth Curry is one of the few shooting guards of shorter stature than Johnson, and he’s been able to carve out an NBA career because of near-automatic shooting, something that Johnson, while still being quite efficient from deep, hasn’t shown yet. It would take a jump in shooting for him to be considered a serious shooting guard prospect in the NBA, but there’s room for a possible opportunity as a serviceable NBA point guard. 

After a season of averaging 18+ PPG in a Power 6 conference, it’s fair to say Meechie Johnson deserves a shot professionally. He has shown a talent for drawing fouls, and he’s been reliable from three and elite from midrange. He can score, plain and simple. Maybe Meechie doesn’t have the ceiling that GG Jackson does, but he absolutely has a higher floor, and he’s provided the Gamecocks with much more value on the court in terms of affecting the game positively. 

Over his last five games, Johnson is playing like an All-American. His assist/turnover ratio is 4.33/1, as a shooting guard, while his turnover percentage is a minimal 3.5% and his TS% is up to 61.2%. All 3 of those marks are above the 85th percentile nationally. Of the 5 lineups including Johnson that have 10+ minutes on the court, 4 of them have net ratings over +15. The average D-1 basketball player is shooting 35.5% from mid-range twos. Meechie’s percentage from mid-range has risen to 61.1%. Johnson isn’t just above-average, he’s elite. 

While the Gamecocks’ 10-1 start is absolutely a team product, they wouldn’t have double-digit wins right now if it weren’t for Meechie Johnson. So far, he is the team MVP and an early candidate for SEC Player of the Year if he keeps up his current pace. He’s one of the best players in the conference, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up making an appearance in the NBA next season.