It is easy to spot DerMarr Johnson when he plays for Cincinnati. He is the slender, 6-foot-9 shooting guard who wears a headband and has unusual touch and skill for a player his size. He also is the player who some observers have labeled Cincinnati's best recruit since Oscar Robertson.
It would be difficult for anyone to live up to that billing as a freshman, especially a freshman playing on the nation's top-ranked team, but Johnson is doing his best. The Washington native is averaging 13.8 points and 3.7 rebounds for the Bearcats, and had 14 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes of their 77-68 victory over No. 7 North Carolina on Wednesday night at the Great Eight Classic in Chicago.
Despite his impressive early statistics, Johnson said the adjustment from being a high school superstar has been difficult. For the first time in his life, he is not the star. Cincinnati (6-0) runs plays for center Kenyon Martin and forward Pete Mickeal, with Johnson a second or third option coming off screens to get the ball. That, too, is new for Johnson, who said he thought he would be handling the ball more than he does.
"It's kind of tough," Johnson said. "There are so many good players and me not being the main man out here and playing a role. . . . I didn't expect to be the main guy, but I didn't know I'd be playing so much of a role.
"I'm not a selfish player, so me not being the main man doesn't really matter. I'm enjoying getting the ball to Kenyon and him finishing. I think I'm still needed on this team and that's good, as long as we're winning."
Adjusting to college off the court has been pretty easy, Johnson said, especially since he transferred from Newport School in Kensington to Maine Central Institute and lived in a dorm there during his senior year of high school.
Johnson said that from an academic standpoint, Cincinnati has been easier than MCI because of the academic support in place, including mandatory study halls and tutors.
On the court, Johnson has been fairly consistent, except for last Saturday, when he missed all five shots against Gonzaga.
"He has done well because he is so coachable," Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins said. "If he wasn't coachable, he would struggle. But he listens and picks up things pretty quickly. . . . It's tough, because he has always played on the perimeter, but I don't know that he has ever been a guard."
So Huggins is trying to get Johnson used to working off screens and moving away from the ball. He also wants Johnson, who weighs just 200 pounds, to get stronger and more aggressive. At times, Johnson has trouble adapting to all of the new things being thrown his way.
"He gets frustrated," said Curtis Malone, Johnson's coach on the D.C. Assault traveling team, who has attended all but one of Cincinnati's games this season. "I think he is like any other freshman when something doesn't go their way when they are used to being the man."
The next question is whether Johnson can be a dominant college player. There was some speculation that he would skip college and enter the NBA draft last spring. It is likely that talk of him leaving Cincinnati for the NBA will creep up every spring until it happens, though Johnson said he is not concerned with such talk.
"When it happens," he said, "it happens."
CAPTION: Although DerMarr Johnson is not the star at Cincinnati, he's averaging 13.8 points per game.