Nigel Johnson bought into bench role with No. 1 Virginia
A basketball journeyman who had played previously at Kansas State and Rutgers, Nigel Johnson knew when he transferred in for his last year of eligibility that he was unusual for Virginia.
The Cavaliers are known for keeping players for four years, rather than having cups of coffee with “one-and-dones.”
But Johnson, an Ashburn native, wanted to come home and he could tell the Cavaliers were a good fit for him. The question was, was Johnson a good fit for the Cavaliers?
Teammate Devon Hall didn’t hesitate to answer the question.
“He fit right in,” Hall said. “It was so crazy how it happened, man, because you never would expect it like that. He comes from a whole different (team) culture, but he’s fit right in, just his attitude and the way he was.”
Johnson went from Rutgers’ second-leading scorer last season to defensive stopper off the bench for Virginia. He relishes the role he plays for coach Tony Bennett and his new team, unanimously voted No. 1 in the country in the Associated Press poll at the close of the regular season.
“You know, when you come into a program that has many guys that have been here for five years, four years, three years, it’s the adjustment to say, ‘OK, I’m not an outsider. I’m not just a renter or a guest at this place. I’m an owner in this,’” Bennett said. “And that’s I think been a progression.”
Johnson finished his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Rutgers and had one year of NCAA eligibility left due to a previous transfer. He wanted to play for a team with a good shot in the NCAA Tournament. Coupled with the proximity to home, Virginia made sense.
“Why not finish my last year at home? That just sealed the deal for me,” Johnson said.
Johnson is a point guard and joined the Cavaliers as they were graduating four-year starter London Perrantes at that position. But Johnson didn’t take over the starting role. Instead, he averaged the second-most minutes off Virginia’s bench this season (17.1 per game), leading the younger substitutes with starting experience he gained at Rutgers.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes for us,” Bennett said. “He can guard the ball when he’s locked in. He can touch the paint with his speed. His experience in a lot of ‘BCS’ games is definitely important. I’m really thankful he’s here.”
Hall appreciates Johnson’s defensive prowess and said he is “one of the quickest people I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“When we get in tough situations maybe we have somebody ready to come off the bench who’s been in those tough situations,” Hall said. “He’s a smart guy who knows how to play the game.”
Johnson attended Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where Virginia first recruited him. He chose Kansas State, but after two years there, Johnson’s grandmother back in Virginia became sick and he felt he didn’t fit the Wildcats’ playing style.
He transferred to Rutgers to play for Coach Eddie Jordan, but that didn’t work out as planned, either.
“That year I was sitting out, he got fired. So essentially I went there and never got to play for him,” Johnson said. “For reasons like that, I think that (transfer) rule should not be, because there’s so many things that could happen in that one year.”
In his only season at Rutgers, he started 13 games and averaged 26.2 minutes and 11.3 points per game. It’s a far cry from his reduced role at Virginia, where he’s averaged 4.9 points and 1.8 assists per contest and made his only start of the year Saturday in celebration of the Cavaliers’ senior night. He’s scored double-digit points in just four games this year.
But Johnson doesn’t mind. He says his job is simply to do whatever the team needs from him to win.
“I try to sit back for the first however many minutes that I’m not in the game, see what’s going on and see what we need help in, and try to provide that when I get in there,” Johnson said. “Just try to make a run or keep the lead or maintain the lead or even add to the lead, and just make an impact that way.”
Johnson’s admiration for Bennett, his third head coach in five years, is evident. Johnson is studying for a master’s in sports administration and higher education and wants to coach when his playing career is done and “hopefully try to get to somewhere coach Bennett is.”
Bennett is “all about the minor details,” Johnson said. “It could be the littlest thing you’d think it would be when we watch film It could be so much as you turning your head on defense and not seeing the ball or missing a block out here or there. Minor details make the biggest difference, and you can see it, the minor details are what make our defense go next level.”
Johnson was suspended in January for three games for a violation of team rules. He won’t discuss the details, but said it helped him learn to rely on the team’s “family environment.”
“I learned to just be patient and just stick with it and talk things out with my teammates and my coaches and they’ll be there for me,” he said.
Johnson knew the Cavaliers were title contenders in January, after they handily defeated North Carolina 61-49, then beat Duke on the road, 65-63. Both are perennial ACC powerhouses currently ranked in the top 12 in the nation.
Virginia will likely face at least one of those teams again if they want to win the ACC Tournament, which started Tuesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Virginia will face either Louisville or Florida State for its first game on Thursday.
The current moment is Johnson’s favorite since arriving in Charlottesville, the moment he’s waited for.
“The (moment) we’re in right now,” he smiled. “Going into the postseason as America’s No. 1 team and the No. 1 team in the league.”