Melvin Johnson hears all of the doubters. While the perennial shooter was a bit surprised by how many people jumped off the VCU bandwagon, Johnson said he is sure there’s no sinking ship in Ram nation. Though there’s a new captain aboard, most of the crew is still the same and more motivated than ever.
In an interview, Johnson said he understands why some fans are concerned; change brings about uncertainty. Still, Johnson understood former head coach Shaka Smart’s decision to leave for the University of Texas understanding what every student and professional athletes realizes; it’s a business first.
“I thought as though if we understood, everyone else should’ve,” Johnson said on the backlash. “He (Smart) had to do what he had to do for his family and the University of Texas is a heck of a job.”
As Smart used to say, “We’re not going to cancel the season.” The basketball team has moved forward and Johnson says he’s optimistic about the Will Wade hiring. The two share a history as Wade helped Johnson’s transition in college. The 6-foot-3 guard is also excited about the new adjustments Wade will look to implement, particularly on the defensive end.
“We don’t have another Briante (Weber) so we can’t go after you 94-feet, man-to-man,” Johnson said. “So he’s pretty much going to adjust to his pieces, which I think is really good because you put your guys in position to excel then.”
Johnson has been mum on Smart’s 2015 recruiting class’ decision to de-commit, but said he and his teammates understood the decision.
“When you’re in high school and the head coach of a college leaves that’s the first thing you do, even as a freshman in college,” Johnson said about the former recruits’ decision to de-commit from VCU and pursue other schools. “But coach (Will) Wade said, ‘we are going to fill those voids,’ and I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Last week, Wade signed transfer guard Korey Billbury, formerly of Oral Roberts University and 6-foot-8 Lee High School forward Gerron Scissum out of Huntsville, Alabama.
It’s all about mental toughness for Johnson and the men’s basketball team. The team endured arguably its most up-and-down season to date, compounded by high expectations, rare home losses, losing Weber, bouncing back to win the Atlantic 10 championship, another early round exit and losing their six-year head coach before welcoming a former assistant back to the program.
While the team battled adversity, Johnson had a personal battle with himself. The streaky shooter started the year red hot from the court and then self-admittedly, he said, ‘took a dip.’ Some self-assessment by Johnson to get his shot and confidence back as well as adding more to his shooting repertoire helped.
Now, Johnson says he’s a much better player than when he started because scoring droughts do not affect him like years prior. He says he’s also a better passer for his ability to forego his shot to set up other teammates. It’s another self-evaluation for Johnson as a way “to stay on the floor.”
“I was a willing passer toward the middle and end of the season,” Johnson said.
Johnson says he saw the difference his assisting abilities garnered from opposing defenses about midway through the season when players were hesitant to follow Johnson driving to the basket. Instead of forcing shots from long-distance, he assessed the situation in-game.
“If my shot wasn’t falling, I could still get into the gaps and I felt as though teams still respected me,” Johnson said. “So when they closed in or doubled, I just tried to find an open guy every time.”
Johnson nabbed 65 total assists this year, improving from 40 last season. One number that went down was turnovers, as the rising senior gave up the ball 36 times opposed to last year’s career-high 47. Johnson also improved on defense, forcing 37 steals on the year, a season-high.
This offseason, Johnson said he looks to improve on dominance on defense and conditioning by ‘getting in the best shape’ of his life.
On the offensive side, Johnson said he is fine with being considered just a shooter. He said defenses are likely to think the same and that gives him the chance to increase his scoring opportunities on the floor.
But some things do get to the outgoing Johnson: unjust outlooks for the 2015-16 season.
“I’m extremely optimistic all the time, but even more so now for the simple fact that they’re so many doubters and guys are really locked on what we want to do,” Johnson said. “Of course we want to repeat and get back to the NCAA tournament and I feel those are still attainable.”