James Johnson departs from basketball program
Bennett announces freshman forward intends to transfer
For the second time in as many days, Virginia coach Tony Bennett announced that one of his players will leave the Cavalier basketball program. One day after sophomore guard KT Harrell departed, redshirt freshman forward James Johnson told Bennett Saturday that he intends to transfer as well.
"Obviously with KT Harrell yesterday and James today deciding not to continue at Virginia I am disappointed," Bennett said in a statement Saturday. "But with that being said, if James and KT feel it's best for them not to be here I think it's better for everyone to part ways."
Like Harrell, Johnson was a high-profile recruit from Bennett's first signing class at Virginia. The Wildomar, Calif. native averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game for Elsinore High School and was listed as a Top 100 Recruit by Scout.com and ESPNU before joining the Cavaliers for the 2010-11 season.
Also like Harrell, Johnson struggled to adjust from high school stardom to a more marginal role in college. After redshirting last year at his request, the forward has played just 37 total minutes this season and scored nine points on 0-for-3 shooting from the field.
"Players have always wanted to play… but I think that instant gratification [versus] the ability to wait and be patient is different in recent years," Bennett said in a teleconference Monday. "A lot of guys have a lot of talent coming in and when it doesn't happen right away, there's probably a little less patience from players, from families, from everyone involved."
Johnson's decision is especially surprising, however, because the 6-foot-9 forward projected to play a more prominent role in the frontcourt next year after senior forward Mike Scott and senior center Assane Sene graduate this spring.
"With James, I tried to point out the long range with him with two seniors in front of him in Mike and Assane," Bennett said Monday. "[I told him] there were opportunities, to keep being patient, to keep developing - that was my message on a few occasions."
In both word and deed, Johnson appeared to support Bennett's patient, long-term approach to his career at Virginia. At the team's preseason media day Oct. 6 Johnson said, "I'm not going to try to rush anything or do too much out there," and he worked hard to learn Bennett's system and develop as a player during his redshirt year.
"In the time I had off [redshirting] I wasn't wasting it," Johnson said. "I was definitely in here every day – I came in sometimes at one in the morning or whenever it was to get extra work in. We're all dedicated here, we're all trying to make a good name for the school, our coaches and each other."
Although the Cavaliers have posted a 10-1 record and rank 24th in the AP poll this season, Virginia's winter break depth woes are becoming an increasingly – and disturbingly – common thread for Bennett. The coach has now seen four of his first six-man class depart the program, and only sophomore guard Joe Harris and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell remain from the original group.
"When you first get a job, you're behind and you're trying to find hidden gems and guys that fit, have character," Bennett said. "When you have a big class and have a lot of scholarships to give, you don't have as much time to evaluate and get the feel, you have to take some chances."
Bennett's window to establish connections with Johnson and Harrell were especially minimal, because each of those two players missed their junior high school seasons. Johnson sat out after transferring to Morse High School in San Diego, Calif. from Canada, while Harrell sat out after transferring from Jefferson Davis High School.
"We got to see them in the summer, they were not real well-known, you have to make some pretty quick evaluations, you try to build the relationship [quickly]," Bennett said. "I'm not going to say we're going to be free from this issue as we progress with recruiting, but I think we're getting a little bit of a better handle of what will work here and we're filling holes, where with your initial class, you're trying to give six scholarships and get as many kids as you can that you think will work."
Johnson joins Harrell, Will Regan, Billy Baron, Tristan Spurlock, Jeff Jones and John Brandenburg as players to depart Virginia during Bennett's three-year coaching tenure.
"I love and respect all the individuals that make up the Virginia basketball program," Johnson said in a statement. "They helped me grow in so many ways. The support and love they showed me was unbelievable and it will be very hard to leave this group. However, I feel strongly that it is in my best interest to pursue other opportunities"