The Sabre Interview: James Johnson

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James Johnson and the Hoos open the season with South Carolina State on Sunday.

Virginia fans will finally get an opportunity to see James Johnson play on the court this season. Johnson, a 6’9″, 238-pound forward, was redshirted last season in order to develop his mental and physical game. The decision came as a surprise to fans since Johnson came in highly regarded and a participant of the NBAPA Top 100 basketball camp at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. Johnson was a Top 100 recruit by both Scout and ESPNU.

Before coming to Virginia, Johnson averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks per game his senior year of high school. Johnson’s Elsinore (Wildomar, CA) high school team won the Sunbelt Conference Championship with a 10-0 record, and advanced to the semifinals of the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section (Division 3). Among a host of career honors, Johnson was named First-team All Valley by the Riverside Press Enterprise and Co-Most Valuable Player of the Sunbelt Conference in 2009-10. (Read more here.)

While Johnson is an extremely athletic player who loves to go hard to the rim and could have likely helped the team in 2010-11, he and the coaching staff felt he needed an extra year to improve in some areas. Johnson says the decision was mutual between he and the coaching staff, but it’s evident he would have loved to help his team last year, particularly with injuries to Mike Scott and Will Sherrill.

“He didn’t think he was ready mentally,” said senior teammate Mike Scott during our June TheSabre.com Interview. “It was just from the neck up, to try to get himself ready to play in a different type of league, a different type of environment – to separate himself from high school to college ball. I think he wanted to sit down and really work on that. He hadn’t really reached that point yet, but I think he’s reached it now and he’s getting better.”

Johnson has four years of eligibility remaining at UVa, and with Mike Scott returning for a fifth year there’s no expectation for him to have to replace the often double-double performer. Assane Sene ‘s late surge last season also takes some pressure off of Johnson and the true freshmen posts in terms of immediately needing to produce big numbers.

“James and even Akil [Mitchell] and Darion [Atkins], those guys, whatever we can get from them this year is just going to be, at least at the present time, gravy,” Bennett said at UVa’s Media Day. “Let’s look at this in two-year increments. When Assane and Mike depart this program, that’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for a guy like James and those guys. That’s where they’ve got to keep developing and almost point to that and this year give us as much as they can.”

Rest assured that every minute Johnson gets on the floor, fans should expect a passionate and aggressive effort from the redshirt freshman. He is expected to bring a strong and physical presence to the mix when he hits the court.

“James is physically talented,” Bennett said on UVa’s Media Day. “With James because he didn’t play last year, and even Mike, there’s a little bit of rust there in terms of the feel. I think once James gets used to the pace, the speed of the game, and getting comfortable with all of those things, you’ll see some ability. He’s athletic, he’s strong, he can step out and shoot, and he’s just got to get comfortable at the pace of the game and in game experiences. At times you’ll see James and you’ll say ‘wow, he’s really coming’ and at times you’ll say ‘he’s not comfortable yet.’ So I think that’s normal because he also didn’t play a year in high school so he’s kind of a baby or an infant in his game experience and I think once he catches up to that, he’s got the physical tools and the desire. He’s a tough young man. He’ll get real physical. I’m hopeful for him … and he’s worked real hard to improve his body and made the most of his redshirt year.”

Johnson says he learned a lot from his time on the bench last year, mostly about patience and mentally preparing himself for the pressure of playing in the ACC. But don’t let the redshirt year fool you. Johnson is a tough player who can make an impact when he finally gets on the floor.

“He’s a beast,” Scott said. “That kid has all the God-given talent. I’m telling you, this guy wants to dunk everything. If he doesn’t dunk everything, he’s close to it. He’s very aggressive. He’s physical. He’s finesse. He can shoot, rebound, and he runs the floor. He just [needed] to work on his defensive positioning with the pack defense.”

Johnson was kind enough to sit down with TheSabre.com for this interview. Enjoy!

Mike: How excited are you to be playing this season?

JOHNSON: I’m extremely excited. We had a great offseason, and being off last year gave me so much time to work on my game – being involved in all aspects of the game, seeing the mental side of it from my teammates, seeing what they go up against every day. So I think seeing all of that and being there first-hand has helped prepare me for this season.

Mike: How difficult was it for you to sit on the bench and watch your teammates play last year, especially when Scott went down with injury and the team struggled?

James Johnson

JOHNSON: It was hard, but I’m still grateful for every day I was off. I might have been ready to play and get some good minutes in, but every time I had off I was able to work on something else, and gain confidence. I worked on humility. I worked on patience. A lot of things I hadn’t had prior to coming here. I was mad that I had to do it, but I’m also grateful for the process and what I’ve learned from it.

Mike: People weren’t sure if it was your decision or the coach’s decision to redshirt you last year. Please explain that process and why you didn’t play.

JOHNSON: It was definitely a combined kind of thing. I had been injured a couple of times and I felt my game hadn’t progressed to where I wanted it to be. Coach Bennett agreed with me and said we’re here to support you and whatever you want to do. I really appreciated that and decided to take the opportunity to redshirt. It gave me another year to progress.

Mike: What has the redshirt year done for you in terms of preparation to play this year?

JOHNSON: The atmosphere, really being involved in the atmosphere. All of the games I went to, I was working out pre-game. I heard the fans boo and yelling and all of that stuff. So it gave me a little taste for what I could look forward to. Personally, it taught me humility and how to serve my teammates in practice every day, knowing that I wouldn’t be in the game the next day. I just had to be humble and take a back seat, learn and sit back and listen.

Mike: What did you learn in terms of game play and bettering yourself as a basketball player?

JOHNSON: It really helped me grasp our defensive and offensive concepts, stuff I was struggling with at the start. It helped me get stronger in all of those things. It helped me to understand my teammates and read my teammates better – to see how they play in the game. When I come in now, I have a better understanding of their strengths and where they thrive on the court.

Mike: How has Mike Scott helped with regard to your development?

JOHNSON: Mike is a great leader. He’s like a big brother to all of us. He takes us to the side when he needs to and shows us things we can improve on. He’s helped me out a lot, especially with my post game. He’s trying to help me understand what moves to do and the situations on the court – where I need to be on offense. I just watch him and know how hard I need to work to get where he’s at. He’s a good role model for all of us.

Mike: What did the coaches want you to work on in the offseason, and how did that go?

JOHNSON: The main thing was continuous play – second and third chances with the ball. If there’s a rebound after the shot goes up, keep chasing the ball. They wanted me to work on my post game and more midrange stuff, like my jump shot, deeper shots, screens and sets – I’ve been working on that a lot.

Mike: Did you need to work on your strength or defense?

JOHNSON: Before I came here I was a good defender in high school, but I didn’t realize how much you need to pick it up to play at this level defensively. It’s something I’ve been working on more and more each day. We do a lot of it in practice. I think I’m getting better at it, but there’s still a lot more I can do in terms of defense – faster on slides, things like that.

It was so difficult my first year, because there are so many different reads and all of the different plays. You have to know where you are at all times on the court. And I was not used to that before I came here. But, after having that off year it really helped me be able to grasp all of those concepts that the coach teaches.

Mike: Had Mike Scott not been injured, you likely would have been counted on to play a lot of minutes this year. With him coming back, your minutes will certainly be more limited. Does knowing you have four more years make that scenario much easier on you?

JOHNSON: Having Mike back is great. And if I have to play behind him, that’s fine with me. I’m going to work hard in practice, and if coach notices that and wants to put me in wherever he sees fit, then I’m grateful for the time I get. I’m going to work hard to get everything that I can on the court.

Mike: Where do you think you’ve improved the most since arriving at UVa?

JOHNSON: My skills have grown. And physically I’ve gotten stronger and all of that. But I think the thing I’ve gained most is that my mental side of the game has really picked up. I’m a lot smarter now with the ball, and a lot stronger with the ball. I try to make the right decisions now instead of trying to force something to the rim.

Mike: What have pick-up games been like with your teammates this offseason?

JOHNSON: The summer was really intense. We went hard against each other all the time. Almost every day we played. That’s where I got a lot better, playing in the summer. It’s been fun.

Mike: Did you have to go up against Mike Scott most of the time?

JOHNSON: I played against Mike and Assane [Sene]. I play against Akil [Mitchell] and Darion [Atkins] sometimes, which is nice because they’re a little faster on the face up. So that helps with my defense in that regard.

Mike: Both Akil and Darion have very long wing spans, which allows them to get up and block shots quickly. Did going up against them help with your low post game?

James Johnson cheered on his teammates from the bench during last season.

JOHNSON: Oh yeah. I was getting frustrated earlier the year because Darion kept blocking my hook shot. I was like, how is a freshman blocking my shots like that. He’s really fast on his ups. But, going through that kind of helped me learn where I need to put the ball on the glass.

Mike: What can we expect from you in terms of your role with the team this year, especially since Mike Scott is back for an additional year?

JOHNSON: Since we got two senior guys in the paint, I’m just going to go in when coach needs me to and run our offense hard. If I get the open shot, I’m going to take the open shot when I have it. If I’ve got good post position, I’ll try to get a good move up. I’ll be a good teammate and support my guys while on the bench. When I’m on the court, I’ll work hard.

Mike: How has the transition been for you academically from high school to college?

JOHNSON: It’s been hard. High school is a lot more assignment based. They give you an assignment, you take it home and do it. Here and I’m doing 20-page papers and presentations in front of classes of 100’s of kids. It’s definitely more vocal and more theory based. We have a great staff here for academics that have helped me grow in those areas. I loved doing presentations now. I love writing a long paper. I really put a lot of my thoughts and ideas into them. It’s given me a chance to be more creative, and I really like that.

Mike: What are the team goals for this season?

JOHNSON: Obviously, to make it as far as we can and the postseason, whatever that might be. For us it’s always about growing and getting better every game. Always being there for each other, and having a sense of unity and passion. I don’t know if we have any specific goals set out yet, just win as many games as we can and get better, grow, and build on everything we do.

Mike: Does the team feel a sense of urgency to get to the NCAA Tournament? Not just for recruiting and improving the program, but for the senior class, particularly Scott and Sammy Zeglinski, who are both in their fifth years at UVa?

JOHNSON: I definitely feel the pressure of that, wanting to make it [to the NCAA Tournament]. I feel like we’ve worked so hard in every game and every practice, it will speak for itself eventually. Of course we all want to help those guys, because they’ve been such great teammates to us in the time we’ve been here. We would love to play in the tournament. I would love for them to get the chance to do that.

Mike: What’s the message from coaches with respect to the season? From your words just now, it sounds like the same old coach speak, “Work hard every day, take each game one at a time, and the rest will take care of itself …”

JOHNSON: We haven’t really talked about the tournament at all – as a team, we haven’t. We all know that you can’t expect something like that. You can’t say that we’re going to the tournament this year, because things happen – players get hurt, and things [sometimes] don’t turn out how you want. So we know that you put the work in that you need and the rest will speak for itself.

Mike: So, one game at a time?

JOHNSON: [Smiling] Yeah, one game at a time, always – one foot in front of the other.

Mike: What are your individual goals for this season?

JOHNSON: Just get on the court, finally. And hope that all my hard work is paying off and that something I’ve done in the offseason in my year last year will show itself on the court this year. Maybe I can make an impact in the game in one way or another.

Mike: Has Mike Scott helped you and Assane with regard to finishing strong and going hard to the hole?

The Hoo post said he has worked on finishing strong in the offseason.

JOHNSON: I was having a little trouble over the summer going hard to the hole and finishing. Mike talked to me about it a little bit – things to work on, like keeping the ball high. That really helped me. He’s helping Assane out a lot, too. I’ve seen him pick up a lot – catch it on transition and finish at the rim.

Mike: Not counting yourself, who do you feel will have a breakout year and why?

JOHNSON: I think all of the second year guys are going to have a great year. But from the freshmen, I really think Malcolm [Brogdon] is going to have really good year. He’s been working extremely hard. I mean, all the freshmen have, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve seen him work hard – like we were as freshmen going to the gym every day and night, whenever we can. His focus and all is really going to help have him a good year.

Mike: Which assistant coach at UVa has had the most influence in your development thus far?

JOHNSON: Coach Sanchez and Coach Williford work with me a lot on my post game. But I’d say for my development, as a person and a player, coach [Brad] Soucie. We meet a lot, and talk a lot about ball and life. It really helps me keep perspective and understand that I cannot rush the process – take one step at a time. I think he’s helped me the most, with understanding my role on the team and what I can do in the future.

Mike: When you’re not playing basketball or studying for classes, what are you most often doing as a hobby or for entertainment?

JOHNSON: Oh man … sleeping. If not that, I’ve been cooking a lot at the apartment. When I’m not doing that, probably playing Xbox.

Mike: You cook for your roommates?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I do.

Mike: Who are you rooming with?

JOHNSON: KT [Harrell], Akil [Mitchell] and Thomas [Rodgers] right now.

Mike: So, what’s the craziest thing that’s happened you guys have been rooming together?

JOHNSON: Ah, man. I’m not sure if I should say, but … there are always some laughs, always something fun going on – typical roommate situation.

Mike: Have you been caught by any of the pranks from Mike Scott? In my interview with him, he mentioned the freshmen egging his room and there was a little payback involved.

JOHNSON: Yeah, we got him pretty good last year. [In retaliation], I took a couple of those eggs [from Scott]. We haven’t really done anything yet [this year], but it always happens when you least expect it when there’s an offseason situation or when we have a couple of days off. Like this weekend, we have four days off so something might happen.

Mike: So do you have plans for more pranks against Mike Scott or have you chosen not to antagonize him this year?

JOHNSON: Oh, we definitely have plans for him.

Mike: Thanks a lot, James.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

Mike Ingalls founded TheSabre.com as a hobby in 1996 under the name VirginiaFootball.com. The site changed its name, became a business, and earned fully credentialed media status in 1998. “The Sabre Interview” appears periodically on the TheSabre.com as Mike sits down for in-depth interviews with your favorite Hoos.

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