Dec. 14, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Fans who get to John Paul Jones Arena long before tipoff Friday night are likely to see a towering redhead work himself nearly to the point of exhaustion, catching rapid-fire passes from one of his coaches and putting up shot after shot — dunks, jumpers, baby hooks, power layups — until his jersey is soaked in sweat and it’s time to return to locker room.

When game time arrives, that player will take a seat on the UVa bench and cheer on his teammates. The day will come when James Johnson plays a leading role for the Cavaliers, but it won’t be this season, barring an unforeseen turn of events.

The tallest member of second-year coach Tony Bennett’s freshman class is redshirting, and so Johnson will be a spectator again Friday night when UVa (6-3) hosts Oregon (7-3) in a non-conference game at JPJ.

“It’s a little depressing, because you wish you could be in there helping out, whichever way you can, even if it’s not contributing that greatly,” Johnson said after practice Tuesday morning. “You just want to be there and part of it. So I just cheer as loud as I can on the bench and try to give my teammates all the support I can if I’m not playing.”

As difficult as watching games may be for Johnson, he approached the coaching staff about redshirting, and the final decision was his. Johnson remains convinced the move will pay long-term benefits.

“Yeah, it’s going to be tough watching every game now,” he said, “but it’s going to pay off when I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year, whatever it is, when I’m really playing strong and helping the team out.”

After moving from Canada to the San Diego area before the 2008-09 academic year, Johnson wasn’t eligible to play high school ball as an 11th-grader because of local transfer rules. He starred for Elsinore High in 2009-10 but lagged behind some of his fellow freshmen when he arrived at UVa in June.

Johnson is an explosive athlete, but they had played against better competition in high school and, in some cases, received superior coaching. It didn’t help, either, that Johnson sprained an ankle during the Cavaliers’ first official practice in October, an injury that sidelined him for about a week.

“I was kind of new to basketball when I came in,” said Johnson, who rooms with first-year guard K.T. Harrell. “I was really fresh and raw in a lot of different things, and I haven’t had the experience a lot of these guys have had. So when I came in, I watched them play with the older guys, and I could really see that if I was given another chance to develop those areas I need to work on, why wouldn’t I take that to better myself and the program?”

In practice, Johnson is a full participant who engages in spirited battles with the Wahoos’ other post players. When practice ends, it’s not unusual for Johnson to remain on the court and go through more drills, with other big men or by himself. Sometimes Bennett supervises. Other times it’s one or more of Virginia’s assistant coaches: Jason Williford, Ron Sanchez and Ritchie McKay.

On game day, McKay takes charge, at home or on the road. As fans trickle in to the arena, Virginia’s associate head coach puts Johnson through a workout that usually lasts 30 to 45 minutes.

“We just do a variety of drills, lots of stuff I wouldn’t get the time to do in practice,” Johnson said, “so it’s helping my skill development.”

McKay said: “It’s just another chance to get James a workout. The difference is, because there’s typically people there before the game, and he’s not playing in the games in front of people, I just think it’s a chance to gain just a little bit of experience when you have some added pressure, a different circumstance.

“It’s a game day. You got your uniform on. I just want him to go as hard as he can, and if he makes a mistake, to get over it quickly and go to the next play.”

Johnson said: “I put whatever energy I have into every workout. I just treat it as another opportunity for me to get better every day. Eventually, after I get by this year, then the games will be my reward.”

McKay said: “The first thing to know about him is he seeks out extra work. He loves individual development and improvement. It’s not a hard thing to talk him into. I think he would work out four times a day if he didn’t have class. But the game day [workout] in particular is just one that I think has been good for him because he gets a chance to feel like he’s playing in front of someone.”

By the middle of May, Johnson hopes to be up to about 240 pounds, and he trains three or four times a week with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for men’s hoops.

“I do a lot more stuff than just the weight training everybody else on the team does,” Johnson said. “I do a lot of agility, a lot of jumping, stuff the normal player wouldn’t do. So I’m really appreciative of that from him.”

Two of the Cavaliers’ frontcourt players — Mike Scott and Will Sherrill — are seniors, and Johnson is likely to move into the rotation in 2011-12. UVa’s coaches considered him an excellent redshirt candidate largely because Johnson’s potential is so great. He’s likely to contribute much more as a fifth-year senior than he would have this season.

“He’s done a really good job,” McKay said. “James is very hard on himself, but he’s getting better. He’s got to grow up a little bit that way, but if he does, we could have a special player.”

Johnson, who has one final exam left, said his first semester at UVa went well. But he learned a valuable lesson the hard way: If you’re not a morning person — and Johnson says he most assuredly is not — avoid 8 a.m. classes.

He had one this semester, so “it’s been kind of tough for me,” Johnson said with a smile.

Johnson has no such trouble in the evenings. Come early to JPJ on Friday night, and see for yourself.

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