By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE -- JaJuan Johnson has emerged as Purdue's unexpected conference player of the year candidate.
Johnson has carried much of the offensive load while Robbie Hummel, the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, has fought through a hairline fracture in his lower back.
In Big Ten play, the 6-foot-10 Johnson ranks fifth in scoring (14.8 per game), fourth in rebounds (7.2), third in field-goal percentage (.565) and first in blocks (2.57). He's one of the main reasons No. 16 Purdue (21-6, 10-4 Big Ten) remains in the hunt for the conference title.
Johnson had 14 points and 10 rebounds and five blocks in Purdue's 81-67 win over Indiana on Saturday. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean tried to recruit Johnson to Marquette two years ago.
"He's one of the most versatile guys around," Crean said. "Certainly, he's a strong candidate for player of the year in this league, and is going to garner some All-American attention. Maybe not necessarily first or second team, but that's on the horizon for him."
Not bad for a player who barely averaged five points and three rebounds last season and had to fight for his starting job early this season.
"JaJuan Johnson's a guy that's really evolved into a very good player," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "He wasn't a guy that we threw the ball into on a consistent basis five months ago. He has the athleticism, he's really become a confident guy and he's really worked on his game."
The key moment in Johnson's transformation from role player to dominator came after he had a career-high scoring game in December and was rewarded with a benching. Even after he posted 20 points and eight rebounds against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Painter felt Johnson wasn't rebounding well enough. Painter sent Johnson a message by starting senior Nemanja Calasan the next game, and it got Johnson's attention -- Johnson has started all but one game since.
"Personally, I took it as a challenge to improve in that area," Johnson said.
Johnson created some buzz during last year's NCAA tournament. He had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in a 90-79 win over Baylor.
"That game really helped me," he said. "A real big stage. It just showed me that if I kept working, I could play like this more regular."
Johnson gained 10 pounds in the offseason and became stronger. Now 215 pounds, he has additional strength and experience as a go-to player to match his jumping ability and quickness.
"That was one of those guys, you look at that athleticism, and you knew that once the weight and strength started to come, then the instincts and the toughness and all those things were going to come, too," Crean said.
Johnson said his new strength has changed his game.
"Seeing myself from last year, there were some plays I didn't make, situations where I could have posted up, but I wasn't strong enough to do it," he said. "This year, it's a big difference."
Keeping weight on has been a challenge.
"It's real tough," he said. "It'll come eventually. It's just one of those things where I've got to keep eating and keep drinking shakes."
Johnson has five double-doubles in conference play. He scored 30 points in a loss to Illinois, had a 20-point, 10-rebound effort in a win at Wisconsin and had 13 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks in a win at Northwestern.
Johnson is aware of the added attention he's drawing.
"I notice now that once I catch the ball, teams try to jump down quick on me just to force me to pass it out, swarm me," he said. "Now I have to pass it out more since I'm not one-on-one."
He still considers defense his strength.
"Some days, your shot's not going to fall and you've just got to rely on your defense," he said. "I can always have a chance of impacting the game on the defensive end, no matter what."
Crean was caught chatting with Painter during Saturday's game. The subject? How Crean wished he had a player like Johnson.
"I wish Indiana would have signed him, I know that," Crean said.