TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Nick Saban has been known to recruit a few good players, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise he wants Avery Johnson on his team.
No, not Alabama’s football team – the 52-year-old Johnson is a little long in the tooth for that.
But Saban likes the former NBA point guard to be on his squad during offseason staff basketball games at Coleman Coliseum. Saban likes to win, something Johnson knows a little about.
Johnson went from undersized, franchise-swapping free agent to NBA champion as a player and reached the NBA Finals in his first full season as a head coach. Now, he’s trying to take Alabama’s basketball program to heights it hasn’t seen in a while.
This is the season the former San Antonio Spurs guard has been pointing to. The Crimson Tide has a highly rated recruiting class coming in and every major contributor returning from last year. Alabama is picked to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference and just missed cracking the preseason AP Top 25.
”We were just kind of piecing it together trying to get to Year 3, where we could have a blend of freshmen and a blend of guys that had already been in our program for a year or two,” Johnson said in a recent interview. ”We think we’re at that stage now to keep trending upward.”
But that trajectory has potentially been thrown off course by injury and a national federal investigation into college basketball.
Alabama had declared freshman point guard Collin Sexton, one of the nation’s top 10 recruits, ineligible. Athletic director Greg Byrne said Thursday night that Sexton will only miss one game, under a suspension for violating NCAA rules.
The school determined he was an unnamed player mentioned in a federal complaint outlining charges against four college basketball assistants and others in September, ESPN reported Tuesday. Alabama basketball administrator Kobie Baker resigned after the school’s internal review following the release of that complaint.
Last season’s top scorer, forward Braxton Key, had surgery on his left knee Tuesday and could be back in about four weeks, Johnson said Wednesday. Guard/forward Riley Norris and guard Ar’Mond Davis are also battling injuries, but Johnson hopes they’ll return to practice next week.
But, as Johnson says, ”Life is not always a perfect world.”
Whether all that works out – and right now that’s a big if – makes the upcoming season a question mark.
Before the uncertainty, Johnson appeared to have a team with the potential to make the Tide’s first NCAA Tournament since 2012.
Alabama has sold a program-record 6,200 season tickets. Johnson led the Tide to the SEC tournament semifinals last season and received a two-year contract extension through 2023 in August.
Johnson’s high energy is a big reason for that. He’s been selling the program to both fans and recruits like Sexton and guard John Petty.
”Coach’s personality is really outgoing, energetic,” Norris said. ”He’s an easy person to talk to, easy person to be around. People want to be around him, like to talk to him. He’s just got an outgoing personality. It helps him, of course, talking to the media, talking to the fans, trying to sell the program.
”And the talent he’s brought in. It’s probably the best recruiting class Alabama’s ever had.”
Johnson is used to overcoming obstacles on and off the court.
The 5-foot-11 point guard was undrafted out of Southern University, where he twice led the nation in assists. He changed teams six times in his first six seasons and helped the Spurs win an NBA title in his fourth stop with the franchise.
Only the second sub-6-footer to play in 1,000 NBA games, the ”Little General” led the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Finals in 2005-06 after finishing out the previous season as interim coach, then went on to coach the Nets. Alabama is his first college coaching job.
”I’ve been competing my whole life, playing in the NBA undrafted, being named the Mavericks coach without any head coaching experience. And on and on,” Johnson said.
In April 2015, Johnson took over at Alabama, a school more known for football, and has embraced both that ”other” sport and life coaching in the college ranks. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich believes Johnson has the personality and organizational skills to thrive in Tuscaloosa.
”He’s not just an excellent coach, but I can see him being an excellent recruiter also,” Popovich said. ”He’s a really personable young man and it takes time to get the talent and create the culture and he’s not skipped any steps. He’s methodically done both, establishing a culture and getting talent into the program. With his expertise, they’re going to do nothing but continue to get better as you’ve seen every year. I’m thrilled for him.”
Johnson also has embraced football, building a rapport with Saban. The two have talked about giving Alabama elite basketball and football programs, like Florida has had with coaches like Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer.
As for those offseason staff basketball games, playing point guard for 16 NBA seasons doesn’t mean Johnson gets that spot on Saban’s team.
”You already know the answer to that,” Johnson said, smiling. ”He and I have a difference of opinion. But that’s OK.”
So long as Johnson can get `Bama back to the NCAA Tournament.
Associated Press writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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