O'Neill was so convinced Johnson couldn't shoot that he allowed him to take just 17 3-point shots during his two seasons at Tennessee. That's roughly the number of 3s Johnson takes in two GAMES now that he's playing in the Rocky Top summer league.
"You never would've seen me shoot that many 3s with O'Neill," Johnson said with a laugh. "He would've probably come off the bench and grabbed me by the neck."
Johnson is only half-joking. O'Neill insisted the Vols make at least three passes before taking a shot ... preferably a close-in shot. Compared to this deliberate system, the basketball played in the Rocky Top League resembles street ball with uniforms. But that's fine with Johnson.
"It's a lot of fun to play like this, instead of playing in a real disciplined system," he said. "It's kind of hard to play like that. You're always worried about mistakes and what shots you take, whereas out here basketball is a game. You're going to miss more shots than you make, so you just go out there and have fun."
Tennessee scored in the 40s 10 times and in the 50s 17 times during Johnson's two-year career. Basically, the Vols worked so hard on defense that they were too drained to score once they got the ball.
"We didn't have nothing left on offense," Johnson said. "You've got to play defense; defense wins championships. But you've also got to have a way to put the ball in the basket. That also wins games, and we didn't have that."
Figuring Tennessee lacked the firepower to win high-scoring games, O'Neill allowed only a few players to take perimeter shots. Damon Johnson wasn't among them.
"People that saw me play at Tennessee don't realize that I can shoot," he said. "But I can shoot. I've shown that ever since I left Tennessee."
He certainly showed it in the Rocky Top League. He won MVP honors in 2007 and won the leadership award in 2008.
Although he found O'Neill's ultra-disciplined style of play restrictive, Johnson believes the former Vol coach deserves some credit for the program's current success.
"O'Neill was very strict but he started something that is very good – being disciplined and playing hard," Johnson said. "We did a great job of playing hard; we just didn't put enough points on the board.
"Now the program has grown a whole lot. Bruce Pearl was the last piece of the puzzle to get Tennessee where we're at now – a national contender on national TV. Now everybody knows Tennessee."
Whereas the Vols played at a snail's pace under O'Neill, they play at a race-horse pace under Pearl. Johnson has enjoyed watching recent Vol teams race up and down the court.
"It's beautiful. It's basketball. It's entertaining," he said. "Bruce Pearl does a great job of entertaining but keeping the game the game.
"He still runs his offense, still uses the Xs and Os, but it's entertaining to watch. He's got the right players in the right style of play, and it's very interesting to watch."