Nigel Johnson is set to make his Rutgers debut on the court in a little more than a week, but he is no stranger to big time basketball. He played for Kansas State in the Big 12 for two seasons and was part of a team that went to the NCAA Tournament his freshman year. He starred in wins over Kansas and Iowa State his sophomore season, both of whom were ranked in the top 12 in the country at the time. His talent and experience is why I believe he is the most important newcomer for Rutgers on the court this season.
Adding the redshirt junior to the mix with Corey Sanders in the backcourt this season is an exciting development and something both players have waited a long time to have happen. I was able to sit down with Nigel and talk with him about the season ahead and his expectations, both for this team and for himself. He also spoke about the coaching transition and how hard last season was for himself personally. Hope was in the air at the RAC when talking to him yesterday and here is what he had to say.
Obviously its been a long journey for you. It’s your fourth year of school. What has the experience been like in transferring to Rutgers and then all the changes that have happened since, and now you finally have a chance to play?
I can’t wait, I’ve been waiting to get back on the court for almost two years. I’m definitely excited, game day is only ten days away. Every day is a day closer and I can’t wait. Tomorrow will be single digits until game day. The transition has been good, the new coaching staff, I love all of them. I think they’re all great and everyone on the team likes them. They’re all players’ coaches. I’ve felt like since they got here it’s been a whole different mentality change. We are all playing differently, people are playing hard. I feel like we are going to be good this year.
Assistant coach Brandin Knight works with the guards, what has he brought to your game and helped you with?
It’s been great, it’s always good to learn from someone who has played at the highest level before. He’s played at the level we are trying to get to. Obviously he knows more than we know, and him being a guard coach, I need all the help I can get from him. He’s helped me a lot in all different areas like guarding and offensively with pick and roll stuff. He’s been great, there’s really not much more you can ask for.
How much did you know about him and his career from his days at Pittsburgh?
Actually I didn’t know anything about him until he got here. Once he arrived, I read up on him, saw a couple of articles, his stats and watched some videos. Just from talking to him, I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m still learning to this day from him.
Now with you in the backcourt with Corey Sanders, you’ve been going head to head with him for over a year now, how excited are you to finally be on the court together playing for each other?
I can’t wait! I feel like we will have one of the most exciting backcourts in the country. I know for a fact we will have one of the most athletic backcourts in the country, if not the most athletic backcourt. We complement each other very well, we play well together. I feel like it’s going to be good for both of us and I think we will probably have one of the best backcourts in the conference.
What can you bring from your experience playing in the Big 12, which is a great conference, as you transition to playing in the Big Ten? What from your background there can you bring to the rest of the team?
I think the main thing I can bring is experience. I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament before and I know how to win. I know what it takes to win and I know what a winning team looks like. I’m just trying to bring that here and show everybody the ropes and then hopefully we make it. I feel like when I was comparing my freshman year team to this team, I don’t see any reason why we can’t make it. I see everything we had there (Kansas State) and I actually feel like this year we can be better than that team. I definitely feel like we can make it far.
Better than your freshman year team at Kansas State?
I think so. Personnel wise, looking around, I definitely feel that way.
Is there more size on this team than you’ve played with before?
No doubt, actually I heard we are the biggest team in the Big Ten this year. With the new additions, C.J. (Gettys) is seven feet tall. Candido (Sa) is 6’9”, he can shoot it and put it on the ground, Issa (Thiam) is a knock down shooter, automatic. So we definitely have some size this year.
How does that change your approach at all on offense, knowing the big guys you have and how that can open up space for you on the perimeter?
Definitely, I mean not only do we have more big guys this year, but we have a lot of big guys that can play. The other team is going to have to guard those guys, which will only open it up more for me and Corey. Also, I feel like the size is going to help with rebounding. Obviously we struggled rebounding last year, offensively and defensively. I feel like this year there won’t be as many one shot and done possessions, we are going to get a lot of offensive rebounds.
Defensively, I feel like we aren’t going to allow for so many second chance opportunities and give up a lot of points that way. I feel like last year that was one of our big problems, we allowed too many teams to get offensive rebounds, allowing for second, third, fourth shots. When you do that, they are going to make one of them. That’s how you lose.
How frustrating was that for you to sit on the bench last year, knowing you couldn’t play? With the experience you have and seeing things going wrong, how has that motivated and fueled you for this season?
It was very frustrating, especially because, as I said in a previous interview a couple of days ago, during the games I could look at it from the outside looking in. I was in practice everyday battling with my team, doing what I could to help them get better. Knowing on game day I could only just come out here and sit on the bench and not being able to play was tough. Knowing the fact that if I was able to play, I feel like there was a lot I could have done to help us win. I feel like a lot of the close games we lost, I feel like we could have won some of those. Probably the roughest thing was knowing that I could have made a difference, but wasn’t allowed to (note: transfer rules forced him to sit out last season). That was the biggest frustration for me.
In terms of motivation, the crazy thing is Corey and I after every game last year, we talked about how we can’t wait until next year, how the team will be so much better next year and have a lot more fun on the court. We couldn’t wait! And now that the time is here, its time to go out there and do it. I’m definitely motivated more than ever. I can’t wait to get back on the court.
In terms of your time away from playing in-season, what has improved most about your game since you last played college ball?
I would say the biggest thing I’ve worked on during my year sitting out and this past summer is finishing with my off hand. Actually, throughout practice last year and this year, I would say that I almost got finishing with my off hand as good as my strong hand. I can go either way and finish at the rim. That was the main thing I was working on, as well as finishing with contact.
Of all the newcomers on the team this year, who has impressed you the most so far?
Geesh that is a hard one (laugh), that’s a really hard one. Can I give a three-way tie? I’m very impressed with C.J., I wasn’t expecting as much as he has shown so far, he has been great. He is going to rebound the ball, score the ball, he has great hands. Once he touches the ball, he is going to catch it. Once the ball comes off the board, nobody is getting around him, he is too big, he will get the rebound. So I’m very impressed with C.J. I would also say Candido and Issa, those are my top three newcomers I’m most impressed with.
Thanks to Nigel Johnson for taking the time to speak with me and for his insightful answers. He is definitely someone I see emerging as a leader on the court and I look forward to watching him this season, as this team begins to move forward under head coach Steve Pikiell. For a full recap of my thoughts and observations from media day and practice, click here. As Nigel said, “only single digits until game day!”