By Matthew Stoss, Daily News-Record
EMU student athlete George Johnson
It’s easy to see. Just watch George Johnson smile, his mannerisms, his walk. He knows – or at least sells a convincing illusion that he knows – what’s happening.
“I’m just sure of myself,” the Eastern Mennonite University point guard said. “Everyone who knows me just knows that I’m real sure of myself – not to the point where I am overly cocky, but I put the work in in the offseason and summer, and I feel like it should pay off.”
Maybe it’s not just an illusion.
Johnson, a sophomore who netted 10.1 points per game as a freshman, is the Royals’ leading scorer and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s fifth-leading scorer this season, averaging 17.7 points. That’s largely thanks to a spot-up 3-pointer that makes half-brother Lamar Taylor – a former point guard at Virginia Commonwealth, where he graduated in 2001 – envious.
“I was knocking down the 3 but not as consistently as he is,” said Taylor by cell phone from Richmond, where he is a school counselor and assistant basketball coach at his alma mater, John Marshall High School. “That right there has opened up so much for him.”
Johnson, also averaging 3.4 assists, is second on the team in 3-point percentage behind D.J. Hinson, making 37.9 percent (25-for-66). Hinson is hitting 42 percent (29-for-69). See Johnson’s stats in the men’s basketball roster.
In Saturday’s victory at Hampden-Sydney, the first EMU win there since the 1983-84 season, Johnson hit two 3s in the waning minutes to help keep the Royals (7-3 overall, 3-0 in the ODAC) undefeated in the league.
“He wants to the ball,” EMU coach Kirby Dean said. “The only way you can want the ball is if you’re not afraid to be the goat.”
Doubt that? Just ask him.
“If I’m going to be wrong, I’m going to be wrong strong,” said Johnson, who also drew interest from Division II schools. “If I’m going to be right, I’m going to be right strong.”
So far, it seems he’s earned that.
The 20-year-old Johnson, who’s from the north side of Richmond, spent his summer playing pickup games in what Taylor called “the best run” in Richmond – and he might be right. The games include Taylor, Ben Wallace (a Virginia Union alum and current Cleveland Cavalier), former Virginia standout and NBAer Cory Alexander and Boston College point guard Tyrese Rice, who is from the south side of Richmond. Current Virginia Commonwealth point guard and reigning Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Eric Maynor also stopped by once or twice.
When not in Richmond, Johnson is bothering Dean to open Yoder Arena, so he work on his game. Johnson constructs a full-court obstacle course of chairs and trash cans to improve his ball-handling. He even stayed over New Year’s for more individual practice sessions that, he said, can take two hours.
“I can’t keep him out of the gym,” Dean said. “On January 1, he was burning my phone up to get in the gym. … It’s a good problem to have.”
That’s why Johnson, a lean 5-foot-10, 160-pounder with $1,500 worth of tattoos on his upper arms and chest, isn’t afraid to look too bad – or too good.
“I think comes from playing with older guys,” said Taylor, who played professionally in Uruguay. “A lot of times in the summer, he’s playing with pros or ex-pros, playing with Ben Wallace and Cory and myself. We’re always telling him to take that shot. … It definitely helps your confidence when you’re playing with older guys, and they’re basically telling you: ‘You can do this.'”
Playing in pickup games brimming with pros and Division I stars also has made Johnson tough, Taylor said. Johnson has known Alexander through Taylor for years. Johnson said Alexander, who played at Waynesboro High School and now does radio color commentary for U.Va. basketball games, taught him how to shoot layups off the wrong foot to bewilder opponents.
During Johnson’s senior year of high school at The Miller School in Albemarle County, he played against two current Atlantic Coast Conference players: Maryland guard Adrian Bowie and North Carolina forward Ed Davis, who went to perennial prep powers Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) and Benedictine (Richmond), respectively.
Add them into his pickup partners, and that’s heady company for a Division III player.
All of that has sculpted his confidence, which is depicted in one particular tattoo: a left shoulder-enveloping “G” (for George) with flames curling off toward his scapula and bicep.
“I feel like that’s the role I’m supposed to take here,” Johnson said of his penchant for big shots. “Even though I’m a sophomore, I think my team trusts me to take that shot.”