19 months went by from the time B.J. Johnson announced his transfer from Syracuse until his first, live, in-game action in an Explorers’ uniform. With the 2015-2016 season going the way it did, 19 months had to feel like an eternity. But from the time Johnson stepped on the court at the Liacouras Center to begin his La Salle career against Temple, where he led the team in points, rebounds, and blocked shots with 23, 8, and 3 respectively, it was apparent that Johnson had been worth every bit of the wait.
In October of 2012, Robert “B.J.” Johnson made a commitment to play basketball at one of the most well-known basketball programs in the country.
“It’s been my favorite school for a while,” Johnson told press following his commitment to Syracuse.
When he was just 17 years old, as an ESPN top 100 recruit, Johnson joined a freshman class that included the Houston Rockets’ Tyler Ennis.
“That’s a very high level program,” Johnson explained of Syracuse. “The experience playing in the ACC, and the certain nuances of the game that the coaching staff taught me [was valuable]. [I picked] up things on and off the court from just being able to play with a lot of great players.”
But Johnson was not blooming the way he or head coach Jim Boeheim may have expected him to, averaging 12 minutes in 35 games played, while shooting 30% from the field and 23% from three over his two years with Syracuse. That prompted Johnson to make a move.
Syracuse.com spoke with Johnson’s father, Robert Johnson, a former La Salle Explorer himself, who described his son’s decison to transfer to his alma mater.
“In high school, B.J. was a 13-year-old freshman on the varsity team, but it comes to a point where you have to realize ‘is that a help or a hinderance?’” R. Johnson said. “He showed some great upside toward the end of season. I said, ‘You know what? We may have to take him off track, put him in the depot and then put him back on the track in a year.’”
Besides his father’s legacy, Johnson mentioned that his familiarity with junior guard Amar Stukes and head coach John Giannini’s candidness throughout the transfer process factored into his decision to move to La Salle.
“I knew Amar Stukes from playing AAU with him, so he had a big part of it,” said Johnson, who played on the Jersey Shore Warriors with Stukes. “The relationship with the players, the honesty that coach [Giannini] gave me during the transfer process, I think those are the biggest things.“
As long as that redshirt year must have felt for Johnson, it will be beneficial for his long-term development. That year proved to give him invaluable time to work on his game and mature physically. Johnson is no longer the thin 165-pounds he entered Syracuse at. He is now listed as 200 pounds, according to ESPN.com.
Johnson didn’t just mature physically over his redshirt year however.
“I’m just more confident [and] more comfortable playing,” he said. “Being three years older than I was when I first came to college, I think I’m just being more comfortable and more confident.”
Johnson already had a high rapport in the Philly basketball scene. Between the legacy of his father’s days as an Explorer, to his rise at Lower Merion high school, and his relationship with Amar Stukes, it was a clear fit between Johnson and the Explorers.
As if La Salle fans were not already anxious enough for his arrival last season, it was reported that during an inter-squad scrimmage, he made 17 three-point shots in a 20-minute span in what fans hoped was a preview of things to come.
18 games into his first season as an Explorer, Johnson has lived up to expectations. He is leading the Explorers in points with 17.3 per game, rebounds with 6.1 per game, and free throws with 3.8 makes per game. All while shooting 47% from the field and 39% from three.
It is clear how much better the Explorers are as a team on both ends of the floor when he is on the court, compared to when he is not. Johnson’s 110.5 defensive rating may not be great, but it is the best rating among all the Explorers this season.
“Well we don’t really play too much 2-3 zone here,” Johnson said about whether he has been able to apply any of the zone defense concepts he learned at Syracuse to La Salle. “When we do, I am really one of the more experienced or active guys in the zone.”
Johnson said the key to his success this season has been “playing within our system, trying not to take bad shots, trying to keep my teammates involved, and trying to make to most out of opportunity when it presents itself.”
“The key to his success is his talent, he’s 6-8, athletic and a very good shooter,” head coach Dr. John Giannini said of Johnson. “I think his improvement has come with the mental approach to the game, with his increased playing time I think he has embraced the challenge of making the most of that, he loves basketball, he wants to be good, he is highly motivated... I think he is appreciating the opportunity (to play extended minutes), he’s appreciating the game, and he’s learning. He’s just getting better at all of these things as time goes on.”
There are times when Johnson absolutely takes over games offensively. His season-high came against FGCU, when he scored 35 points. That being said, Johnson tries to balance staying aggressive with playing within La Salle’s system and keeping his teammates involved.
“I always try to remain aggressive, but try not to be too aggressive because that’s when bad shots are forced and unnecessary turnovers [occur],” said Johnson. “I try to stay aggressive, but when a man is open, [I] hit the open man and keep trying to play within our system.”
Even with Johnson’s individual success, there are still issues that La Salle needs to address.
Johnson clearly is an effective addition on the defensive side of the ball. This is evident in his team-leading defensive rating. The challenge is translating his individual defense to helping the Explorers defense as a whole, which is allowing 78.9 points per game and 47% shooting from the field and 40% from three.
The Explorers struggled on defense early in the season, allowing opponents to score 83.2 points per game, which forced La Salle to focus more on defense.
“Prior to Dayton and St. Louis we were one of the worst defensive teams in the country,” revealed Johnson. “To start the new year, we just tried to make a conscious effort to play defense and to focus more on defense. We know if we stop the other team from scoring, we have a pretty good chance of winning, when we are trying to just outscore opponents it’s pretty much 50-50.”
The challenge for the team will be how quickly they can learn to play with each other, according to Johnson.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to get more comfortable with each other,” he said.” We have five or six new pieces that we didn’t have last year, so we have had a couple bumps in the earlier part of the season, but we learned from that and we are looking forward to the rest of the season.”
One of Johnson’s teammates that has been on the same page with him is senior Jordan Price, who has scored consistently in double-digits in all but three contests this year and is shooting better than he did last season. At times, the Price-Johnson pairing has been extremely effective, for instance, when the duo combined for 49 points in a triple-overtime victory against Mercer. Their complementing skill-sets give La Salle scoring threats from either wing.
“Last year a lot of the focus was on him,” Johnson said about Price. “So just having me and a couple of other guys being able to take the scoring load off of him, it makes it easier for him to score and vice versa. When teams try to keep him [contained], it opens the game up for me.”
Dr. Giannini thinks that his star forward has evolved as a basketball player, specifically the finer points of the game.
“I think he is becoming a better defender and rebounder,” said coach Giannini. “He is just figuring out the multitude of things that goes into winning, whether its leadership, or rebounding, or defensive communication, or ball screen defense. I think he is understanding the many facets of the game that goes into winning, and when you are a top player on the team and you are playing a lot of minutes you are going to be asked to do a lot of those things.”
If B.J. Johnson continues his high level of play, and all of La Salle’s new pieces are able to gel together over the course of the conference season, Johnson will be an A-10 POY candidate. His combination of size, skill, athleticism, and basketball IQ make him one of the top scorers in the nation, and someone who is capable of carrying the team offensively. Time will tell if B.J. is able to accomplish his goal of making the NCAA tournament and the way he has been playing, B.J. Johnson is a name that Philly college hoops fans will hear often for the next couple of seasons and perhaps even further into his basketball career.
Photo: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports