Syracuse’s Johnson leaving early for NBA
When Wes Johnson was asked what he thought Syracuse fans would remember most about him, he chose personal over performance.
"My smile," Johnson said Monday, beaming as usual as he announced he was declaring for the NBA draft and hiring an agent.
Fans also will remember the blocks, dunks, 3-pointers, rebounds and steals — plus the unselfishness the Big East player of the year displayed every time he took the floor.
Johnson, one of only a handful of four-year transfers Jim Boeheim has accepted in his 34 years as head coach, averaged a team-leading 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds while starting all 35 games in 2009-10. The 6-foot-7 small forward, who spent two years at Iowa State, is considered a potential lottery pick, maybe even a top 5 choice.
"I’m still speechless about it," Johnson said.
In making the announcement that everyone expected and Syracuse fans dreaded, Johnson said it was a difficult decision because he enjoyed school and his teammates. He said he would continue taking classes and expects to graduate this summer.
"I think my mom, my family will be pleased by that," he said.
Johnson said that before making the decision to skip his final year of eligibility, he talked at length with his family, Boeheim and assistant coach Rob Murphy, who recruited Johnson and has become close to the Orange star.
Boeheim declined to comment, preferring to let Johnson have the spotlight to himself. Johnson’s teammates were happy and saddened by the news.
"I’m happy for him. It’s the right decision for him, his family," Orange guard Scoop Jardine said. "We had a great year with Wes. What more can we ask for?"
Johnson, who sat out last season because of NCAA rules, blossomed into one of the best players in the nation under Boeheim.
"He’s just a solid player, good night in and night out, and he’s quiet about it," Boeheim said at midseason. "He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever coached."
Lightly recruited out of high school in Corsicana, Texas, Johnson almost became lost in the sometimes shady world of prep school basketball. After committing to play at Louisiana-Monroe in 2005, he changed his mind when the coach who recruited him left. Johnson briefly considered junior college in Texas before opting to go to prep school to improve his standardized test scores and maybe his college of choice.
Johnson made stops at the Patterson School in North Carolina, Eldon Academy in Michigan, and lived with his brother in Detroit before committing to Iowa State.
If not for Kevin Durant, Johnson likely would have been Big 12 freshman of the year in 2006-07, when he started 30 games for the Cyclones and averaged more than 12 points and nearly eight rebounds. But after an injury-plagued sophomore season Johnson had a falling-out with the coaching staff and transferred.
After sitting the requisite year but making an impact in Syracuse practices, Johnson burst on the national scene again in November, earning most outstanding player honors at the 2K Sports Classic tournament. He scored 42 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in lopsided victories over California and defending national champion North Carolina at Madison Square Garden.
Despite a hard fall in a game against Providence in early February that limited his mobility, then an injury to his right (shooting) hand a week later against Connecticut, Johnson did not miss a game and helped lead Syracuse to a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll the first week in March. Syracuse was just the sixth team to go from unranked in the opening poll to No. 1.
Fully healed by the time postseason play began, Johnson led the Orange to easy victories over Vermont and Gonzaga in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, scoring a career-high 31 points and snaring 14 rebounds against the Zags. Syracuse finished 30-5 after losing to Butler in the round of 16.
Johnson was a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, presented each year by the Atlanta Tipoff Club to the top college basketball player in the nation. He was also a contender for the Wooden Award and the Oscar Robertson Trophy, presented to the nation’s top player by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
"He’s a player that can do it all," Jardine said. "He didn’t get a lot of credit for how good he is on the defensive end. He’s going to be an exciting player next year to watch."