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UNLV Rebels vs Akron Zips

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Jackie Johnson III (24) shoots a layup ahead of Akron Zips forward Enrique Freeman (25) during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

UNLV went big in the offseason, centering its rebuilding effort around a trio of frontcourt veterans who all stand 6-foot-7 or taller. But the most impactful addition may be coming in a decidedly smaller package.

Freshman point guard D.J. Thomas was expected to be an immediate standout, and he has lived up to his blue-chip recruiting status, averaging 12.3 points and a team-high 6.3 assists per game. What no one could have expected is how well he would pair with fellow point guard Jackie Johnson.

Thomas and Johnson are listed at 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-11, respectively, making them the two shortest players on the team. But lately, the duo has turbocharged the UNLV backcourt, using their dynamic speed and playmaking ability to lift the team at both ends of the court.

Through 10 nonconference games against Division I opponents, UNLV’s three most efficient lineups featured Thomas and Johnson paired together. Now they could be the key to the team’s fortunes as they get set to open Mountain West play on Saturday at San Diego State (1 p.m., CBS).

For the season, Johnson is averaging 8.1 points and 1.1 assists in 16.3 minutes, and his defensive effort has made him an effective complement to Thomas despite their smaller stature.

“Jackie’s ability to score it, make shots and pick up the ball full and guard the ball the length of the court helps D.J.,” Kruger said. “They can create and make plays off each other. They’re both quick, so when they’re both out there together we challenge them to get the ball in the paint, be aggressive and make plays for each other.”

Johnson, a junior, has come off the bench all season, carving out a role as a key reserve who can speed up the tempo of a game in an instant. Head coach Kevin Kruger has spoken several times about Johnson’s improvements on defense, and how his fullcourt pressure can disrupt opposing offenses.

Thomas has been taking notes and wants to incorporate some of Johnson’s hounding tactics into his own defensive arsenal.

“In practice and in games he picks up fullcourt all the time,” Thomas said. “He brings a lot of toughness on defense to this team. When he comes into the game, he gives his all on defense and pressures the ballhandler, makes it tough on them. His defense helps us a lot.”

That attitude on defense helps allow Kruger to play the two smaller guards together, because he knows Johnson can hold his own at the point of attack despite rarely matching up on the height chart.

“No doubt,” Kruger said. “When you’re the height they’re at, you’ve got to have a little bit of a pitbull mentality to you. You’ve got to be able to distract and be disruptive on the ball, and I think that’s what he’s done. He’s made it tough for ballhandlers to bring the ball up the court comfortably.”

The Scarlet and Gray have thrived when the two southpaws have been unleashed at the same time. In 115 minutes with Thomas and Johnson on the floor together, UNLV has outscored its opponents by 38 points (215-177). That works out to a plus/minus per 40 minutes of +13.1; in all other minutes, UNLV is just +2.8.

It helps that Thomas and Johnson are the two best dribble penetrators on the team, and through nonconference play they have been the most accurate shooters, too. Johnson leads UNLV in 3-point percentage at 45.0%, while Thomas is second at 41.4%.

Their speed and ability to force help defense has added pop to UNLV’s offense, and that impact is multiplied when they team up.

“It’s very fast-paced, because he can push the ball and he can score very well,” Thomas said. “He’s very dangerous going downhill left-handed, and he can shoot it, so he complements me very well.”

UNLV will face its toughest test on Saturday at SDSU. The Aztecs are formidable once again, following up their appearance in last year’s national championship game with another physical, formidable roster.

Size will matter in that contest, and throughout the rest of the Mountain West schedule. But when UNLV needs a certain extra something, look for Kruger to call on his backcourt boosters to change the energy.

“Jackie has done a really good job of getting better, and obviously D.J. has gotten better since the first day he was here,” Kruger said. “I think they’re both really good players.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun