Through a series of incidents he had no control over, rookie Frank Johnson has been thrust into a position of leadership as the Washington Bullets continue their stretch drive for the playoffs.
The first-round draft choice from Wake Forest has replaced the troubled John Lucas as the team's playmaker and will be in charge of the offense today when the Bullets take on the struggling New York Knicks at Capital Centre (WTOP-1500, 1:05).
"I've got to adjust to playing 35 to 40 minutes after playing 15 to 20," Johnson said. "This is a big challenge ahead of me. I have to learn to control the pace of the game, not to let things get out of hand."
Johnson is most effective in a running game, where he can best use his quickness and one-on-one ability to get open shots. He has excellent range with his jump shot, but when he penetrates he wants to shoot, not pass.
"I know there's a possibility I'll be starting the rest of the year," he said. "I'll just have to make the best of the situation and do the best job I can."
This has been an unsettling season for Johnson. He didn't get his contract settled until after training camp started, then it was discovered he had high blood pressure and he missed more practice.
Johnson played sporadically early in the season, occasionally breaking out in scoring bursts. When Lucas missed a game in Philadelphia Jan. 6, the rookie got his first start. He started the next 10 games, but made only 36 of 93 shots (39 percent). However, the Bullets won eight and were playing their best basketball of the season. Then he sprained his left ankle Jan. 23 at Kansas City and missed two games.
By the time Johnson's ankle healed, Lucas was back running the offense. Coach Gene Shue returned to his previous rotation, using Lucas primarily in the first and third quarters and Johnson in the second and fourth.
"It took Frank a long time to regain his form after being hurt," Shue recalled. "His shooting was off and he became a little hesitant. He was looking to pass more and passing up his shots."
Johnson still was used most of the important minutes of the fourth quarter, but had scored only 31 points in his six previous games before taking over for the absent Lucas last Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Starting the last two games, he has played 82 minutes, made eight of 20 shots, had 20 points and 21 assists.
"I still wasn't totally comfortable in the first half," Johnson said of Friday night's methodical, 108-98 victory over San Diego. "I got a little more relaxed in the second half and tried to be more aggressive with the ball.
"I'm still looking to pass first because that's the job of the point guard. When I came off the bench, I knew I was expected to score, but now it's my job to get everybody else involved. But I've still got to be enough of a shooting threat to make my man work hard on defense."
How well Johnson adjusts to his latest role will have a major effect on the Bullets' playoff hopes and their chances of advancing.