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Johnson returns home to play college hoops at Virginia

Former Broad Run High School standout Nigel Johnson has transferred to the University of Virginia after earning his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University. Johnson says he’s excited to play for coach Tony Bennett at Virginia and for his parents to be able to attend all of his home games.—Photo Courtesy/University of Virginia, Matt Riley
On a hot day in mid-August, the Virginia Cavaliers’ newest weapon is ready to go — not only for his first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but for the 7 p.m. meeting we had set just hours before.

Draped in black Nike workout gear and a pair of rare Jordan sneakers, Nigel Johnson is several minutes early, obviously eager to get back to the grind of a NCAA Division I offseason. With each step he takes toward the Pipeline Plaza Starbucks in Ashburn, you see a kid who has supreme confidence.

When engaged, the confidence remains. Never off-putting, it bleeds through in an easy, disarming fashion. If not for the small recorder on our patio table, patrons would assume we were two buddies merely shooting the breeze. And while anyone would be honored to call Johnson their friend, this encounter was about more than the breeze; it was his chance to set the record on a well-traveled college basketball career.

Eye on the prize

To the outside world, Johnson’s journey has been perplexing, particularly the latest move from Rutgers — where he transferred to in 2015 after two uneasy seasons at Kansas State — to the University of Virginia.

After all, in his only season at Rutgers, the lightning-quick guard jumped off the television screen, stacking career-highs in every major category. It seemed like Johnson was in a good place, on a team re-constructing its image.

Yet, when given the chance to explain, you understand Johnson’s plight. He pulls you into his world, one that very few of us can even relate to.

“For my last year, I just wanted to have a real shot at the postseason,” explains Johnson, who averaged nearly 30 points per game as a sophomore and junior at Broad Run High School in Ashburn before transferring to Riverdale Baptist (Md.) for his senior varsity season.

“Not only because I want to win a championship, but that’s how people at the professional level notice you.”

When put in those terms, the move south was a no-brainer. Rutgers, although currently on the uptick, has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 1991. The Virginia Cavaliers? They have punched a ticket to the Big Dance in five of their last six seasons.

Most of Virginia’s recent success is due to the style which head coach Tony Bennett brings to the gym everyday. Bennett, a former NBA point guard, has constructed one of the most feared defenses in the country, smothering opponents with his revolutionary “pack-line” system.

While fellow ACC coaches cringe at the sight of Bennett, his players, both past and present, are lifelong believers. Johnson, who canceled his visit to the University of Colorado after meeting Bennett, understands how valuable a season under his direction could be.

“Having a coach who played in the NBA was big for me,” Johnson recalled. “Coach Bennett definitely knows what it takes, especially as a guard.”

Home cooking

Back in April, Johnson officially announced his plans for the upcoming year. “Home is where the heart is!!,” he shouted via Instagram, accompanying it with a 21st-century nod to Virginia's unofficial nickname, #WahooNation.

Johnson, the second-oldest of four boys, was born into DMV royalty as the son of Catrice and Sidney Johnson — the latter, a defensive back on the 1991 Washington Redskins Super Bowl team. His parents, still Northern Virginians, stuck around after Sidney’s football career ended, because, as Nigel tells it, “they just really loved the area”.

When asked how it felt to come home for his senior season, Johnson turned noticeably enthusiastic.

“My parents will be at every home game in Charlottesville,” he exclaimed. “It was absolutely part of my decision.”

Life on the lawn

Only a few months into his enrollment at Virginia, Johnson is enjoying life as Tony Bennett’s first-ever graduate transfer. Per NCAA rules, Johnson will be immediately eligible to play based on the bachelor’s degree in criminal justice he completed while at Rutgers.

According to Johnson, Charlottesville has been extremely welcoming, both in the classroom and on school grounds. Even during a less-hectic summer session, the 'Hoos' are out in full force.

“It’s an everyday thing,” he said with a grin. “After workouts and class, we always get stopped to take pictures and stuff.”

Even the local press would agree with Johnson’s initial reaction.

“The excitement is high around Nigel,” said Caroline Darney, editor of SBNation’s Streaking The Lawn. "He brings an offensive spark U. Va desperately needs.”

Don’t be surprised if this is the season where Nigel Johnson becomes a household name in college basketball. Virginia’s two best guards from a year ago — London Perrantes and Marial Shayok — have moved on from Wahoo Nation; and his skill set seems tailor-made for Bennett’s defense-first scheme.

Speaking with Aaron Breitman, editor-in-chief of SBNation’s On The Banks, it’s a bit clearer as to why the Cavadliers pursued Johnson so rigorously. Breitman, who saw him up close while at Rutgers, called Johnson a “plus on-ball defender” that has the ability to be an “impact player” in Charlottesville.

When our coffee cups were empty, and the Northern Virginia sun had faded in the background, Johnson and I stood up to part ways. As I walked to my car and before he got into his, I asked him where he was off to from here.

Without hesitation, he turned back and smirked.

Not having to say a word, it was clear; Johnson was off to the gym. It was time to get back to work.

Casey Pazzalia is a freelance sports writer, editor and consultant. In 2016, he launched The Nosebleed Seat on Medium, which was honored for NBA writing in 2017. A native of Liberty, N.Y., Casey now resides in Northern Virginia with Shea, his German Shepherd.


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