As the Rutgers men’s basketball team sunk to rock bottom last year, all Nigel Johnson could do was watch.
The 6-foot-1, 186-pound guard sat out for the year after his transfer to the Scarlet Knights from Kansas State. He practiced with the team upon his arrival to Rutgers but could not play due to NCAA transfer rules.
“Toughest part about sitting out last year definitely was the fact that I had to watch my brothers that I practice with everyday — gave my all to in practice everyday — had to watch them,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of injuries. … Just to come out and knowing I couldn’t play, I had to sit and watch. We were struggling.
“I know if I would’ve been able to play, there would’ve been something I could do to help. The hardest part was to just be able to sit there and know I couldn’t really do nothing about it. That was hardest thing to me.”
With the arrival of Johnson on the hardwood ahead of the 2016-17 season, help is on the way for Rutgers. He has two years of eligibility left, and expects to make an immediate impact alongside sophomore guard Corey Sanders.
Johnson said either can play at the one or the two when they are both on the floor.
“We complement each other real well,” Johnson said of his chemistry with Sanders. “I mean, it’s kind of hard in practice to practice it a lot because we (are) the only two point guards. So we play together, who’s going to be the point guard on the other team. But when we’re in the game, when we’re playing together, we play off each other real well.”
Johnson last played two years ago for Kansas State. He averaged 4.2 points over the span of 62 games in his two seasons with the Wildcats before he became a Scarlet Knight.
Johnson committed to Eddie Jordan when he originally arrived to Rutgers, but he spoke highly of Steve Pikiell and the new staff.
“Everybody (loves Pikiell),” Johnson said. “It’s kind of hard not to when you see big strides we made. It’s kind of hard not to like him because you can see. They always say it’s night and day, you can really see it. It’s a complete turnaround from last year, so it’s hard for anybody not to like him.”
Johnson said the emphasis on defense was reminiscent of his days at Kansas State under Bruce Weber.
“For the first two weeks of practice, that was all we did — defense,” Johnson said. “Defense is definitely our No. 1 priority because … we’ve got a lot of good scorers this year, so we’re going to be able to score the ball. But at the end of the day, even if a team can’t score, defense is something you can do. You can play defense at home, on the road, no matter where you (are) at.”
Johnson described Rutgers’ man-to-man scheme, and noted how all five players on the floor remain on the same page.
“It is (man-to-man), but you’re never on an island,” Johnson said. “If you get beat, there’s supposed to be help defense right there so you can recover. Everybody’s on the string, so when the ball moves, everybody moves in the one direction and you play as a team.”
With a fresh start underway, Johnson said he is confident in the direction of the Rutgers program ahead of his first year of eligibility.
“I’m actually really confident,” he said. “I mean, Pikiell got us rolling, everybody’s playing together. It’s just a whole different mentality change from last year. Everybody’s going hard in practice, the energy’s there, everybody likes each other. I mean, we all just playing well together and we look real good.”