The wait is over for Nigel Johnson. On his third college coach following a transfer to Rutgers and year on the bench via NCAA rules, Johnson heads into the 2016 season as a projected starting shooting guard.
After what Johnson called “the hardest year I've had to deal with since playing organized basketball,” the former Kansas State Wildcat prepares for his Rutgers debut.
“I've never had to sit out a whole year and just be able to sit back and practice with my teammates, work with them every day and not be able to be out on the floor with them,” Johnson said after a summer workout with Steve Pikiell and staff. “It was definitely hard but it was a good learning experience. I got to sit down and look at it from a different perspective and really work on my game.”
Johnson spoke 1-on-1 with Scarlet Report upon Pikiell's hire. After offseason workouts, Johnson remained eager about his opportunity under the former Stony Brook coach.
“Coach Pikiell has been great,” Johnson said. “When I first heard about coach [Eddie] Jordan getting fired, of course I was a little nervous. I didn't know what to expect but then it was a pretty quick process when they hired coach Pikiell. I had heard from a couple of people that I work with at home and previous coaches that I had that told me he's a really good coach. He's a guard coach. He was going to let the guards do their thing.
“From the time I got here until now, it's been great. I couldn't ask for anybody better. He's definitely working with everybody. As you can see, everybody's getting better one through five. Every player on the team is improved in every way, so it's been great so far.”
A bond with sophomore Corey Sanders helped Johnson stay focused during his time on the bench and a coaching transition. Sanders led Rutgers with his flair for dramatics as a freshman while Johnson helped in practices, and provided guidance for his friend.
“Corey is my best friend on the team, and I'm probably his best friend on the team,” Johnson said. “We talk about it every day, Mike Williams too. Me and Corey, that's my main man. We've been thinking about this, talking about this since every day last year. We've been waiting and I feel like we're going to turn a lot of heads this year.”
Johnson and Sanders were not always close, however.
Sanders was an early commitment to Jordan's 2015 recruiting class while Johnson was one of the final pieces as a late transfer.
“I had never talked to him,” Johnson said. “I had never met him. I had no connection to him before he got here. He committed here before I got here, but the freshmen do some kind of abridged thing, so they get here a little later. I was on campus before he was. … When he got here, I was kind of showing him the ropes around because I had been here for a month already. That's my little brother. I can't wait.”
Johnson wants to be a defensive stopper in Big Ten play after he watched last year's team struggle in transition and perimeter defense.
“I'm going to work hard every night,” he said. “I'm going to do all I can do bring [wins] to us. I'm going to put the ball in the hole. I'm going to defend, try to guard the other team's best guard. Hopefully we can turn it around and I feel like we're going in the right direction now.”