Johnson finds niche at Rutgers
Austin Johnson is about to play his final game at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
After 90 career games for the Rutgers men’s basketball team — 33 of which he started — the senior forward will take his home court for the final time.
And yet, there was a time in Johnson’s career when it was possible that his final game at the Rutgers Athletic Center was going to be March 4, 2010 — in an 11-point loss to Seton Hall.
Following that season, Johnson — along with the rest of the team — faced a decision. Fred Hill Jr. was relieved of his head coaching duties and replaced by former Robert Morris head coach Mike Rice.
“I wasn’t certain,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know who [Rice] was. Anytime there’s uncertainty, you become skeptical about the situation. I definitely had a lot of skepticism.”
Players such as Mike Rosario, Patrick Jackson and Gregory Echenique chose to leave for other programs.
Johnson, meanwhile, went down a different path. He remained as part of the program for the remainder of his availability.
In making that choice, he had to adjust to his second coaching staff in two years — something he called a “minor speed bump.”
Johnson’s freshman campaign could have been classified as a speed bump as well, since it did not yield the brash numbers most Division-I players enjoy in high school.
“I feel that the first year — it varied,” he said of his success. “I went up and down because it was such an emotional rollercoaster for me.”
Much of that limited achievement can be attributed to the learning curve. At 6-foot-8, Johnson is considered undersized for a forward — especially in the Big East.
To make it even more difficult, he entered college 30 pounds lighter than he is now — which allowed bigger forwards to use their physicality against him.
“You’re guarding 6-foot-10 guys every night, and they’re strong,” he said. “You have to find how to stop them without fouling them. You’re already behind the 8-ball being undersized.”
Johnson had to find a way to combat that.
He needed aggression.
The Elkins Park, Pa., native admitted he realized as soon as he joined the Scarlet Knights that it was going to be a completely different world from what he was used to.
“[In high school] I just scored by dump-offs and hustle plays and stuff like that,” he said. “As soon as I came here, I saw that I wasn’t going to be able to necessarily jump over people. I was going to have to get into their body because I’m undersized.”
That presented another problem. There must be a balance between being aggressive in an effective way and not fouling.
This distinction is one that freshmen do not always grasp. Johnson was no different.
He considers practice to be the place where he really learned what the difference felt like.
“Coaches were calling me for what I thought were ticky-tack fouls — but were actually fouls that got called in the game,” Johnson said. “I learned that you have to stay on the court and be productive — and help your team out.”
He also had some help. Center Hamady N’Diaye, who was later drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, had a hand in Johnson’s development — as did former guard Mike Coburn, who remains one of Johnson’s closest friends.
Now a senior, Johnson still does not lead the team in points or rebounds, but he has provided a consistent punch when the Knights need it.
More importantly, he has found other ways to impact the team — particularly with his leadership capabilities.
“He’s the best when it comes to that,” Rice said. “He’s so experienced and has such a purpose in everything that he does, and that carries over to our younger guys.”
Johnson now has to hope that all of his teachings have sunk in, since he has just two more regular season games before he leaves.
The idea of how many games he has left still has not hit him yet, and it will likely not hit him — at least until tonight during pregame warm-ups.
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe I have one game left [at the RAC]. This thing flew by. It’s mostly bitter. I can’t say bittersweet. It’s mostly bitter because it has been a great four years. I wish we could have won a little bit more.”
Even if Johnson will not walk away with as many wins as he would have liked in his collegiate career, he has still made an impact on the team — one that Rice said does not always show up in the numbers.
“He’s been invaluable behind the scenes,” Rice said. “He’s still fighting and scratching and trying to finish the season strong.”
The season and Johnson’s time as a Knight will eventually come to an end, but he said his time at Rutgers has been the most valuable experience he has had so far.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I tell people all the time that you learn, you go to class and you’re taught things. But most of the lessons I learned that I can apply to life — I’ve learned on the basketball court.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.