Aug. 23, 2017
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In their mid-teens, they were AAU basketball teammates in the Tidewater area, after which each followed the other’s career from afar. And so when Devon Hall learned that Rutgers had granted Nigel Johnson his release, the University of Virginia guard called his friend.
Their conversation included Hall’s thoughts on Tony Bennett‘s program at UVA.
“I said, This is a place where you’re going to develop and get better. You’ve only got one year left, and this is a culture I think anyone would want to be a part of it,’ ” Hall recalled.
“I told him about the family atmosphere here and the way Coach Bennett operates and what our goals are.”
Johnson, a 6-1, 186-pound guard, is from Ashburn, not far from the Washington Redskins’ training facility in Northern Virginia. With only one year of eligibility remaining, he was looking for a school near his home and a program “where I could come in and make a major impact right away,” Johnson said, “and where I know we have a really good chance to get to the [NCAA] tournament.
“UVA fit the bill. They have a tradition of going to the tournament.”
Under Bennett, the Cavaliers have advanced to the NCAAs in five of the past six seasons. They finished 23-11 in 2016-17 after losing to Florida in the NCAA tourney’s second round.
From that UVA team, three players with eligibility left chose to transfer to other schools, including guards Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok. That put the Wahoos in the market for help in the backcourt, and their coaching staff was already familiar with Johnson, who had attended camps at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We recruited him a little bit out of high school,” UVA assistant coach Jason Williford said. “Once he became available, I kind of picked up where we left off and stayed in touch.”
The Cavaliers saw their efforts rewarded in early April when they received a commitment from Johnson, who averaged 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 2.0 assists for Rutgers in 2016-17.
“He gives us some quickness, some ability to score, and the ability to be a really good on-ball defender,” Williford said.
After completing the requirements for his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers — Johnson majored in criminal justice, with a minor in labor studies — he enrolled at the University last month for the final session of summer school. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in higher education from the Curry School of Education, with a focus on intercollegiate athletic administration.
Away from the classroom, Johnson was able to participate in UVA’s remaining summer practices and begin training with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
“I feel like it’s going well,” Johnson said. “I’m finally getting in the right shape I need to be in. Obviously with Coach Bennett and UVA basketball, our defense is what we pride ourselves on, so you’ve got to be in great shape. I’ve been playing well, making shots and playing good defense, so I’m ready to get this thing going.”
Johnson has made a lot of stops in his basketball career. After attending Paul VI Catholic High as a ninth-grader, Johnson spent the next two years at his local public high school, Broad Run, where his teammates in 2011-12 included a big man named Jackson Matteo.
They’ve been reunited at UVA. A two-year starter at center for Virginia’s football team, Matteo completed his playing career last fall and is now one of head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s graduate assistants.
As a Broad Run junior, Johnson led the D.C. area in scoring, averaging 29.5 points per game. For his senior year, he transferred to Riverdale Baptist in Maryland, and in spring of 2013 he signed a letter of intent with Kansas State.
After two years at K-State, he transferred to Rutgers to play for Eddie Jordan, who had coached Johnson in AAU ball. Rutgers fired Jordan after the 2015-16 season, which Johnson had to sit out as an undergraduate transfer.
“Coach Jordan and I had a great relationship,” Johnson said. “That tore me up.”
Johnson played for the Scarlet Knights last season and started 13 games. But Jordan “was my whole reason for going there,” Johnson said, “so it didn’t really work out there. So I figured I’d come back home my last year and play for my home school.”
Hall has known him for years, but Johnson was new to the Cavaliers’ other players. That hasn’t posed any problems.
When Hall and Johnson were high school seniors, their teams met on Dec. 6, 2012. Hall had 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in Cape Henry Collegiate’s 57-54 win over Riverdale Baptist. (Johnson scored nine points.)
As a teenager, Hall marveled as Johnson’s athleticism, and that hasn’t changed.
“He’s super quick and super fast,” Hall said. “He’ll be able to push tempo a little more, get to the basket and create. And he’s got really good, quick hands. He can defend when he sets his mind to it.”
The Cavaliers’ trademark under Bennett has been their rugged Pack Line defense. It differs from the defenses most colleges run, and there will “be a learning curve” for Johnson, Hall said.
It takes time for habits to form, and it can be challenging at first to focus “on being continuous,” Hall said. “It’s easy to stop when you jump in the gap or after you close out and your man passes the ball.”
Williford said: “From an offensive standpoint, it shouldn’t be as big of an adjustment. He can make shots. His biggest thing is being a little more sound with the ball, as Coach Bennett likes to say, and not being careless.
“Defense will be the biggest adjustment, trying to get him up to speed. Not everybody plays as hard as we do defensively, and you could see some of that in the summer workouts. He relaxes at times. But having to guard Kyle Guy in practice, Ty Jerome in practice, that should get him up to speed quicker than normal.
“I think the biggest thing for him will be not gambling. Our system’s more containment. Heat the ball up, but don’t get beat. You’re not trying to steal it, but be a pest. Offensively, touch the paint, but make good decisions once you get in the paint.”
Johnson said: “I’m still learning the Pack Line and trying to get adjusted to it, and I feel like I’m getting there. It’s definitely an adjustment, but I feel like it’s going to be a good one.”
His father, Sidney Johnson, played four seasons in the NFL as a defensive back. Nigel played football and basketball through the eighth grade, after which he decided to concentrate on hoops.
“I was pretty much equally good at both, but I always just loved basketball more,” he said. “When I got to high school, I figured I wasn’t going to play both in college, so I had to pick which one I wanted to play, and basketball was my love and my passion.”
He’s eager to show off his quickness on defense at UVA. He sees his role on offense as “hitting shots and getting in the paint, looking for my teammates and drawing attention so I can kick it out,” Johnson said.
“We’ve got a lot of shooters, so anytime I can get a foot in the paint, that’s going to force people to close into the middle, and then I can just kick it out to any one of them and they’re going to knock it down.”
Ashburn is about 1,200 miles from Kansas State and approximately 230 from Rutgers. The trip to Charlottesville will be much easier for Johnson’s family members.
“I’m going to have a good support group at every game,” Johnson said, “so it’s definitely a good feeling knowing I’m going to have a lot of people in the stands [rooting] for me.”