SEATTLE — Practice was a struggle for Carlos Johnson.
He is 6-foot-3 but plays like he’s bigger. And he used to be a lot bigger. When he arrived at the University of Washington, he weighed about 265 pounds, and he could feel it.
“When I first got here, those practices were tough for me,” Johnson said Friday, a day ahead of UW’s 5 p.m. Saturday game against Utah at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. “I couldn’t even last 30 minutes without being totally tired.”
That might be hard to believe for those who have seen Johnson play. He brings more consistent energy and hustle than any player on the Huskies’ roster, a quality that has some fans wondering why the freshman from Centralia, Ill., doesn’t see the court even more than he already does.
A late addition to UW’s 2016 recruiting class, Johnson cracked the rotation early and immediately earned respect as a try-hard guy with deceptive leaping ability and innate toughness who could eventually develop into a nice player. He played a season-high 25 minutes in Washington’s 85-83 overtime victory over Colorado on Wednesday.
He has scored in double-figures four times, including a 15-point performance in UW’s 87-61 victory over Oregon State. Like most freshmen, he isn’t always in the right place defensively. But his effort is consistent, and that stands out on a team that sometimes lacks in that area.
Johnson has also trimmed down to a listed weight of 235 pounds — he says he’s lost about 35 pounds since he arrived in the summer — thanks to a strict, early-morning workout regimen with strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro.
They met at 6 a.m. each day, which was a struggle by itself.
“It was tough for me at first, because it was an adjustment out of high school and I wasn’t used to waking up early and being on a set schedule,” Johnson said. “But when I got here, Shapiro told me he was going to get my body right, and I believed in him.”
He said he ran “miles” on the treadmill, on the elliptical machine, up and down the stairs, “just trying to get as much weight as possible off me.”
Now, practices aren’t as taxing. And Johnson is still thick and physical enough to give the Huskies some kind of defensive post presence when they roll out a four or five-guard lineup, something UW coach Lorenzo Romar has opted to do more frequently recently in an attempt to spread out opposing defenses and generate more consistent offense.
Johnson enjoys this; Romar says Johnson likes to joke that in high school, “sometimes he was the best center in America at 6-3.”
“He’s very comfortable playing all over the floor, but very comfortable playing around the basket and mixing it up with guys,” Romar said. “I remember we played Oregon and Dillon Brooks tried to post him up a couple of times, and Carlos (said), ‘You may score, you may be a great player, but this is not going to be easy just walking down here and posting up.’ And he’s not intimidated by it at all.”
The Huskies (9-9, 2-4 in Pac-12) used a five-guard lineup during part of their comeback from a 17-point second-half deficit against Colorado, though they might not be able to keep up with the same personnel against Utah.
The Utes (13-5, 4-2) might be without leading scorer David Collette, a 6-foot-10 forward who sat out the Utes’ victory over Washington State due to concussion symptoms. But Utah still has 6-foot-9 junior forward Kyle Kuzma, who averages nearly 15 points per game, and 7-foot center Jayce Johnson, who started Wednesday in place of Collette. And unlike Colorado, Utah actually seeks to feed the post, and would likely seize any opportunity to do so against a smaller lineup.
Only two Pac-12 teams make more than half of their field-goal attempts. Utah is one of them. And the Utes just beat WSU by 41 points without Collette. Which means UW will have to play far better — particularly on defense — than it did in its victory over Colorado, during which it trailed by 15 points at halftime after another ragged opening period.
“I think it’s a matter of energy and toughness,” UW guard Matisse Thybulle said. “If you watched the first half and just turned the TV off, I feel like you’d think that we’re a pretty soft team and aren’t willing to work hard. “But if you kept the game on and looked at the second half, you see what we like to think we are.”