Healthy Shurna focused on NU's goal

CHICAGO -- Basketball is undoubtedly fun again for John Shurna, who is completely healthy for the first time since December, and that’s a promising sign for Northwestern and its hopes of reaching its first NCAA tournament.

Drew Crawford caught a glimpse of the old Shurna, better known as Johnny to his friend and teammate, at the Sonny Parker Summer League on a recent Saturday afternoon. After arriving at halftime of their game, Shurna changed his shoes, stretched, put on his jersey, went onto the court and quickly hit 4-of-5 shots.

“It’s great to see him healthy,” Crawford said. “Everyone knows what he can do healthy. Johnny, when he’s aggressive offensively, he gets on streaks where you can’t stop him. You saw a little bit of that today. That’s just what he does.”

Shurna opened last season as hot as any player in the country and closed it near that form. In between and for a bulk of the year, he battled through a variety of injuries, including a concussion and a nagging ankle sprain, which hampered his game.

Shurna doesn’t like discussing what he went through physically last season. While he’ll admit he had injuries, he won’t use them as a defense to why his numbers dropped as the season progressed. He scored 20 or more points in nine of his first 10 games, but after his injury he only had five such games the rest of the year and three of those came in the final two weeks.

“I have no excuse for how I played,” Shurna said. “There were some ups and downs. If you step out on the floor, you try to go out there and perform well. I didn’t do that for a while. I let my team down, which is frustrating, especially for the seniors. We were having a great year and we let it slip away.”

Shurna felt horrible he couldn’t help Michael Thompson, who Shurna called the program’s greatest player ever, to the NCAA tournament, but he also realized his window for such an opportunity was quickly closing, too.

The NCAA tournament is all Shurna is after this season.

“I think you come to Northwestern for a great education and to play athletics, and basketball-wise, you want to make the NCAA tournament,” Shurna said. “That’s the goal this season.

“You only live once and this is kind of the last go around. It just seems like it was my freshman year the other day. Now I’m a senior and it went by fast. I want to make sure I gave it my all and I had a lot of fun, too.”

The NBA surely must be somewhere in Shurna’s mind as well. He put his name into the draft after his junior season and pulled it out in time to keep his college eligibility. With his 6-9 size as a small forward and his NBA-caliber shooting ability, Shurna was told he could have been a second-round pick if he had remained in it.

No one expected Shurna to stay in the draft, but he did have a moment or two where he thought about foregoing his final season at Northwestern.

“I’m competitive, so once you start something, you always want to finish it and do it strong,” Shurna said. “But there’s so much going on for me at Northwestern -- an opportunity to play basketball in college in the Big Ten against some of the best players in the country and get my degree, which is huge, because basketball will only last so long.”

Shurna has taken the offseason to especially work on his strength and ball handling. In his game at the Sonny Parker Summer League, Shurna spent plenty of time in the post and showed off an improved interior game, which included finishing strong at the rim.

“I see him getting more to the basket, posting up,” said tournament director Sonny Parker, a former NBA player. “He’s got a lot of toughness in him.”

Crawford has also been impressed.

“Johnny, he’s just a hard worker,” Crawford said. “He’s in the gym all the time. He just continued to get better. His athleticism continues to get better. He’s stronger. I was telling him the other day he was looking really strong. That’s one thing he’s been working on.”

Shurna’s motivation is simple, but it does the trick.

“Someone is in the gym trying to get better, and you got to make sure you’re in the gym as well trying to be the best player you can be,” Shurna said. “I know everyone in the Big Ten is in the gym working hard, you got to make sure you’re doing the same.”