News, notes and thoughts from the college basketball world. And a few other things, too.
I spent Tuesday afternoon in Houston watching former NBA head coach John Lucas II work out players at “The Lab,” which is Lucas’ name for the gym at Lutheran North High School.
Watching Lucas coach and listening as he dresses down a pupil for a stupid mistake is one of my favorite parts of my job. Lucas’ old-school style is refreshing in an era where college coaches are coddling their players more and more because they’re afraid cursing or extolling discipline could result in a transfer.
Lucas, though, doesn’t mince words. On Tuesday, I watched him go ballistic on a draft prospect who talked back to him, scream at a high school girl for not being more of a bully in the post and curse (mildly) at a seven-year-old after a poor possession.
“Get your lil ass off the court,” Lucas said.
Obviously, there were players at all levels in Lucas’ gym Tuesday, but the one who stood out the most was former Memphis standout Geron Johnson.
A 6’3” guard, Johnson has spent the last month training in Houston in hopes of getting a shot at the next level.
Johnson’s name hasn’t surfaced in any of the online mock drafts that are so popular this time of the year. But after watching him work out—and talking with Lucas and three current college head coaches—I’m convinced there is a place for him in the NBA.
“He can definitely play in the league,” texted one coach whose team lost to Memphis this season. “High-level athlete, high-level defender.”
“Absolutely, he’s good enough,” another coach texted. “Energy guy, spark off the bench.”
Indeed, no one is projecting Johnson to be an NBA star, but it’s reasonable to believe he could become a defensive stopper such as Memphis’ Tony Allen or former San Antonio guard Bruce Bowen. Both players made millions by pestering opponents into turnovers and bad shots.
That, more than anything, is what Johnson does best. He has a large wingspan (6’8.5”) and is almost always the quickest, most athletic player on the court. Johnson has an eye-popping first step and tremendous burst for his 6’3”, 197-pound frame. His broad shoulders, wide base and alpha-dog mentality prevent him from being pushed around.
Former Syracuse star C.J. Fair, who led the Orange in scoring last season, is also in Houston preparing for the draft. He and Johnson have been matched against each other multiple times in recent weeks.
“He doesn’t have the hype that he deserves,” Fair said. “I played against a lot of good guards in college, and he’s as good as any of them. He’s explosive, he’s got a really good handle, and he can guard 94 feet.
“If he hangs his hat on defense, he can definitely stick in the NBA. If someone gives him a chance, they’re going to end up feeling like they got a steal.”
He said Tuesday that Johnson often concerns himself with trying to prove himself as a scorer rather than focus on the areas that could lead to a contract: defense and ball-handling.
“He has to understand how he’s going to be successful,” Lucas said. “He gets bored with what works for him right now. He’s got to stay with what works for him. NBA athleticism? Off the chart. NBA-caliber defense? Off the chart.
“But he wants to prove he can shoot. We pay people for different things in the NBA. Some guys are paid to defend and run a team and get other players shots. That’s what he does best.”
Johnson has workouts scheduled with the Houston Rockets (June 1) and New York Knicks (June 2) and is hoping other opportunities surface in the next few weeks. He said he’s confident his performance in individual workouts will enhance his chances of being drafted.
“I feel like I’m the best defender in the country,” Johnson said. “I can also bring that motor, that will to win a game. I’m fearless. I think I’m a guy people would want on their team.
“I don’t see anyone in the draft that has what I can bring to the table. Burst, speed, strength. I’ll do whatever a coach asks. Put me on the floor, and I’m going to make something happen.”
The biggest questions surrounding Johnson have nothing to do with basketball. He was kicked out of two different junior colleges for off-court issues ranging from marijuana possession to theft allegations.
Johnson underwent counseling at Lucas’ treatment program in the summer of 2012. He then enrolled at Memphis and, according to Tigers coach Josh Pastner, never caused one bit of trouble.
“He turned his life around,” Pastner said. “I’m so proud of him. That’s the main thing NBA guys want to know about. He had structure here. He had a curfew. How is he going to respond when he has a little more freedom? That’s one of the questions they have.
“I’m confident he’ll do just fine.”
Johnson, who averaged 8.9 points last season in a crowded backcourt, knows he’ll be asked about his past issues during interviews with NBA teams.
“I’m not nervous about it at all,” he said. “I’m a communications major, so whatever questions they have to ask me, I’m going to be honest with them and give them the right response.
“I didn’t change who I was. I always had good character and was a genuine guy. I just changed some of my habits and the way I lived and the choices I made. It wasn’t easy, but it was something I told myself I wanted to do, so it happened.”
Johnson returned to Memphis earlier this month for graduation ceremonies. As proud as he is of himself for earning a degree, he’s certain that bigger accomplishments are on the horizon.
“My expectation is to get my name called (on draft night),” Johnson said. “I really don’t have any expectations other than that. The GMs know me. I’ve been on their radar. The off-court issues are the only thing holding me back.
“I’ve got nowhere to go but up.”
All of this talk about Johnson got me thinking about other potential sleepers in this year’s draft class. And by sleepers, I mean guys who could have an impact in the league despite being projected to go in the second round or not at all. Here are 11, off the top of my head.
- Russ Smith, Louisville
- Dwight Powell, Stanford
- Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
- Johnny O’Bryant, LSU
- Cory Jefferson, Baylor
- Chane Behanan, Louisville
- DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
- Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
- Markel Brown, Oklahoma State
- Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State
- Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
C.J. Fair was arguably the most high-profile player at Tuesday’s morning session. Later that afternoon, he drove to the airport to catch a flight to Chicago, where he was scheduled to work out for the Bulls on Wednesday.
A 6’8” wing, Fair averaged a team-high 16.5 points as a senior last season and ranked second in rebounds with 6.4. He thought about entering the draft after his junior year but opted to return to Syracuse, where he helped the Orange open the season with 25 straight wins.
“I was on the fence last year,” he said, “but coming back helped me as far as being a leader. I was one of the go-to guys. I hadn’t really experienced that situation since high school. I didn’t want to go into the NBA as a role player.
“We were undefeated for so long. The target was on our back. It showed me how hard you have to prepare each day to maintain what you have.”
Fair, who has already worked out with Cleveland, has sessions scheduled with the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday and the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. His draft projections are all over the board, anywhere from the late first round to the end of the second round to undrafted.
“I don’t get caught up in projections,” Fair said. “It’s just a guess. I’m trying to solidify myself as a first-rounder.
“There are going to be nerves every time you step on the court for a workout, but this is what I signed up for. This is my chance to make my statement and get drafted as high as possible. I’m well-prepared.”
Fair said his agent suggested he train in Houston with Lucas. He’s been in Houston for the past month.
“He’s the right guy to push me, especially defensively,” Fair said. “He’s going to be up in your face, making sure you compete at a high level. That’s what I need as far as guarding.
“I’ve never guarded the way he wants me to guard, especially since I’ve been playing zone (at Syracuse). He’s making sure I have a killer mentality. It was a struggle the first week, but I’m fighting through it.”
Along with Johnson and Fair, the most impressive players working out with Lucas on Tuesday were Kenny Kaminski of Michigan State and Darius Paul of Illinois.
A rising sophomore, Kaminski averaged 4.9 points in 12.2 minutes off the bench last season. With stars Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling no longer on the roster, Kaminski will be counted on heavily to keep the Spartans afloat in 2014-15.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Kaminski said. “We’re a program that has high expectations every year, no matter who is there. It’s my turn to step up. I’ve learned the ropes, and now it’s my time.”
Kaminski certainly looked sharp Tuesday. Don’t be surprised if he blossoms into one of the country’s top long-range shooters as a sophomore. The 6’8” Kaminski made 49.4 percent of his three-point attempts (38-of-77) last season. He said he’s spent the past month in Houston working to become a more versatile player.
“A lot of off-hand development, a lot of defense, a lot of ball-handling,” Kaminski said. “I think I’ll be playing the 4 at Michigan State. But in the NBA I’ll be a 3. So I’m working on defending a 3 and, on offense, learning how to make moves each way.
“This is the best shape I've ever been in, especially in May. The workouts you get down here are second to none. Lucas is the best. He gets guys ready not only for next season but for the NBA. That’s my dream. That’s my goal. John has all the connections. He knows the league inside and out. Why not work with him?”
While Kaminski is looking forward to the upcoming season, Paul will have to wait another year before he takes the court for Illinois.
Illini coach John Groce announced on May 13 that he’d suspended Paul for the entire 2014-15 season following his arrest for underage drinking and resisting a police officer. Groce said the incident was just one of “multiple transgressions” by Paul since arriving from Western Michigan prior to last season.
When he’s not in the gym, much of Paul’s time in Houston has been spent receiving life counseling from Lucas and his staff.
“I’m trying to get better as a person and a player,” Paul said. “It’s a maturity thing. I’ve already learned a lot.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into coming down here, but my coaching staff said this was the best thing for me. I didn’t know if Coach Groce was going to give me another chance. I’m happy he did.”
Paul’s scholarship was revoked for the 2014-15 season. He said he’ll likely take courses at a junior college for a year before re-enrolling at Illinois.
Paul should provide a huge boost for the Illini when he returns in 2015-16. The 6’9” forward—who earned Freshman of the Year honors in the MAC in 2013—swished countless three-pointers during various drills Tuesday, often with Kaminski’s hand in his face.
Texas Southern coach Mike Davis, who led Indiana to the 2002 NCAA title game, said former Tigers center Aaric Murray has already worked out for the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers and has “four or five more” sessions scheduled with other teams.
Murray, who played at LaSalle and West Virginia before arriving at Texas Southern, averaged 21.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a senior for the Tigers’ NCAA tournament team. He had 48 points in a win at Temple and 38 in a loss to Cal Poly in the First Four.
“Everyone knows he can score and block shots,” Davis said. “But these teams want to see if he can play defense. I didn’t ask him to play defense a whole lot for us because I didn’t want him to get in foul trouble, to be honest with you.
“I wanted to try to win some of those nonconference games, so I didn’t want him to get into early foul trouble. He normally guarded the weakest guy.”
Murray was criticized for having a poor attitude and work ethic at West Virginia, but he apparently changed his ways at Texas Southern.
“People want to see if he can control his emotions,” Davis said. “All I know is that I never had any problems with him.”
One of the players benefiting the most from Lucas’ tutelage is Davis’ 15-year-old son, Antoine, who is being home-schooled so he’ll have time to work out at the facility year-round.
Antoine, who just finished the eighth grade, hardly backs down when being guarded by players nearly 10 years older than him.
“The way to get better is to struggle,” Mike Davis said, “and the way to struggle is to always play against someone older than you or better than you. If you’re always having success, it means you’re not getting better as a player. Antoine’s working with high school kids, college kids and sometimes even pros.”
Judging by his highlight tape, Antoine could end up being one of the top players in the class of 2018.
One of the sleepers of the 2014 class could be Khadeem Lattin, a versatile 6’9” forward who signed with Oklahoma.
Lattin, who was home-schooled, picked the Sooners over schools such as Georgetown, Memphis and Texas. His mother, Monica Lamb, is a former USC star who helped the Houston Comets win three WNBA titles.
Lattin said he’s hoping TaShawn Thomas, who recently transferred from Houston to Oklahoma, is eligible to play immediately. Lattin and Thomas have worked out together multiple times in Houston.
“He’s a better back-to-the-basket kind of guy than I am,” Lattin said, “and I’m a better ball-handler and playmaker on the perimeter. It will be interesting to see it works out if we’re both on the court at the same time.”
Lattin said he expects to be in Oklahoma’s rotation as a freshman. The Sooners, who finished second in the Big 12 last season, return standout guard Buddy Hield along with rebounding machine Ryan Spangler, among others.
“Oklahoma has jumped on the scene crazy-fast,” said Lattin, who leaves for Norman June 7. “Coach (Lon) Kruger really knows what he’s doing. With his personality...he’s the kind of guy I’ll cling to right away.”
A lot of optimism is swirling at Baylor these days about the improvement of Johnathan Motley, a 6’9” forward who redshirted last season. With Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince forming a crowded frontcourt, there was no need for Motley to play. But he certainly could have. One Baylor insider told me Motley would have been the best post player on the team last season.
Motley was on a team of college players who recently returned from a seven-game exhibition tour of China. He averaged 17.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in those contests.
Another Baylor player, guard Al Freeman, averaged 11.6 points and 4.1 assists. Freeman, who redshirted last season because of a wrist injury, was a consensus top-100 recruit in the Class of 2013.
*A relative asked me to recommend a good sports movie other than The Natural, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and Remember the Titans. I went with Eight Men Out, the flick about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd and others.
“It was awful,” the relative said. “I was asleep after 30 minutes.”
Is it fair to question this person’s sanity?
*I like Johnny Manziel. If you don’t, that’s fine. But it’s flat-out ridiculous to shred the guy for going to Las Vegas over Memorial Day Weekend. He’s 21 years old, this is his offseason, and he did nothing illegal. Why is he not allowed to celebrate becoming a first-round NFL draft pick? I feel for the dude.
What’s worse is that there are hundreds of pro athletes out there who have been arrested for crimes such as domestic assault, repeated drug use and sexual battery. But we turn a blind eye to that stuff so we can demonize a guy for (legally) having a drink at a Vegas nightclub. Oh, the horror!
Speaking of Vegas, here’s this week’s Sin City top-five list:
Five of Vegas’ Hidden Secrets
1. The Fireside Lounge at Peppermill: Hang a left after you enter Vegas’ most famous late-night diner and venture into the dimly lit lounge, which makes for a great last stop after a night on the town. Drinks (especially the martinis) and appetizers are dirt-cheap, and you may just fall asleep on one of the couches. And, yes, there is an actual firepit at the center of the room.
2. Secret Pizza at Cosmopolitan: The best New York-style pizza you’ll ever eat can be found one level up from the Marquee night club. There is no sign outside, but look for a long corridor next to Blue Ribbon Sushi. The lines can be ridiculously long, and service is slow, especially after midnight. If you don’t feel like waiting, stroll across the skywalk and hit up Earl of Sandwich at Planet Hollywood. Another great late-night filler-upper.
3. Beers for $1 and margaritas at Casino Royale: You won’t find a better deal in Vegas. I usually snag a bottle or four of Michelob. Why Michelob? I have no idea, but those suckers are always cold as ice. Also, I hear the ATM at Casino Royale only charges a $1 service fee, whereas ATMs at other casinos usually charge $5.
4. The barbecue at Ellis Island: Take a taxi one block off the strip between 4-10 p.m. for a damn good chicken and rib dinner at Ellis Island’s BBQ and Brewery. A half-slab of ribs with chicken costs just $11.99. A full rack of ribs is $13.99. Both options come with beans, corn on the cob, coleslaw and garlic bread.
5. The Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay: Into taking pictures? You won’t find a better view of the Las Vegas strip than this. Chat outside on the observation deck or linger at the bar inside and enjoy the DJ. I’m not sure this place is such a secret anymore. But just in case you didn’t know...
Thoughts About Restaurants/Food
*One of the best barbecue joints in America has moved. Thankfully. The Pecan Lodge, which had been operating out of a tiny space in a shed at Dallas Farmers Market, now has its own full-sized building to call home.
I joined friends Todd Bowen and Ricky Fandrick in line at Pecan Lodge’s new digs on Main St. in Deep Ellum around 3:15 on Saturday, the second day it was open. The wait to order was about 25 minutes, which was nothing compared to the two to three hours I spent in line multiple times at the old spot. Even better, they never ran out of food, which used to be a daily occurrence.
Todd, Ricky and I split the Family-Style Platter, which consisted of one pound of pork ribs, one beef rib, one pound of brisket, a half-pound of pulled pork and three sausage links. All of that was a steal for $69. The brisket and the beef rib, as always, were the highlights. But the pork ribs and pulled pork were as good as anything I’ve had in Kansas City, and that’s saying something considering those two items are KC’s calling card.
About a year ago, country singer Pat Green opened a restaurant/bar/outdoor music venue called “The Rustic” off Central Expressway (I-75) in Dallas. I went there Friday night and was floored with its overall greatness.
Huge indoor and outdoor areas with picnic tables facing a stage, excellent service by the bartenders and wait staff, and free valet parking, but you better tip! I wasn’t all that fond of my turkey sandwich, but Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com tells me he had the best hamburger ever at The Rustic. I’ll try it next time. Oh, the homemade chips were good, too.
For the past few years, friends have been hyping up a restaurant chain called Coal Vines. I finally stopped in Saturday and, wow, the pizza was good.
I’ve joined a Twitter campaign calling for McDonald’s to bring back its hot mustard sauce. I suggest you do the same.
Until next week...
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR