Johnson adjusting to arduous demands of Havoc

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

The growing pains started early for Melvin Johnson, perhaps earlier than he would’ve liked.

The freshman guard with the baby face and brace-laced teeth suffered cramps in his first practice with VCU and even left with an injury.

“I wasn’t ready for that style of play,” Johnson said.

The Rams’ suffocating defense and run-and-gun style offense was foreign to Johnson, who instantaneously signed with VCU in the middle of last summer.

Johnson had initially committed to Miami, but was granted a release from his National Letter of Intent by way of a “family choice.”

A day after the news surfaced VCU called for Johnson to visit, resulting in what head coach Shaka Smart called “the fastest recruitment ever.”

The only concern was whether or not the 6-foot-3, 195-pound shooter out of the Bronx could play up to VCU’s calling card – defense.

VCU head coach Shaka Smart told freshman Melvin Johnson (left) he could contribute if he defended at a high level. (Photo by Chris Conway)

Smart had been told that Johnson wouldn’t fit in with the Rams because he didn’t know how to defend.

“I took that less of a comment about Mel because we make our own evaluations and more as a compliment to our team and our style that we are defensive oriented,” Smart said.

Johnson entered the college scene labeled for his range – or for VCU, perhaps the next 3-point threat to supersede guys like Brandon Rozzell and Troy Daniels.

Only, it hasn’t worked out that way. Johnson missed 17 of his first 20 three-point attempts in his first nine outings and is just 11-for-54 (20.4 percent) through 24 games.

Instead he’s established a reliable running floater that he claims he established before he arrived at VCU.

“When he first got here I thought he was a shooter, that’s what everybody was saying,” VCU junior guard Rob Brandenberg said. “Then he came here, he was putting the ball on the ground, splitting ball screens, floaters and things like that.”

Johnson has been VCU’s top scoring threat off the bench, averaging 6.1 points per game in just over 16 minutes and his 15.1 points per 40 minutes rank fifth on the team.

But as goes Johnson’s defense, so go his minutes, which have been on the rise recently. He’s averaged a little more than 20 minutes of playing time per game over the last six games and had seven assists and three steals over the last three games.

Johnson has averaged nearly five more minutes in games when he’s gotten involved on defense and recorded one or more steal.

“At this point in the season I think I’m real comfortable,” Johnson said. “I’m able to play in the style of play without getting too tired and I can defend at a better level than coming in.”

That’s not to suggest he hasn’t kept his eye on what’s emerged down in Coral Gables, where Miami is ranked third in the nation after a 10-0 start to Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Johnson sends congratulatory texts, but no regrets.

“I still made the right decision,” he said.

In Richmond, Johnson has adjusted to his part on a team that leads the country in turnover margin and steals per game and has one of the most prominent defenses in the country.

“He can be a good defender,” Smart said. “We believed that during the recruiting process and we still believe that now.”

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