Worth the Wait
This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
If you ask Westchester senior center Amir Johnson, the best part about getting to this point in his basketball career is that his mom, Deneen, has finally learned enough about basketball to make some sense.
That's a welcome relief for the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Johnson, who says that once upon a time, his mom would offer advice despite not knowing a dunk from a donut.
"I remember when she didn't know anything," says Johnson, 17, who's rated the nation's No. 2 center and No. 20 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. "She used to get on my nerves with ‘you need to do this' or ‘you need to do that' when she didn't even know what she was talking about. Now, she'll come at you with all these facts and stats. She's learned a lot about basketball."
Fact is, a lot of things are more normal for Amir Johnson these days.
By the start of last season, Johnson was already on his fourth school in three years (he says he was searching for the "right combination of school and basketball program") after attending Pacific Hills and Narbonne as a freshman and Verbum Dei as a sophomore.
He was then forced to sit out all but four games of his junior campaign embroiled in a City Section eligibility investigation after accusers alleged that Westchester illegally recruited him from Verbum Dei. Johnson was reinstated in May — a reversal Westchester head coach Ed Azzam says came because the charge was never substantiated — but only after the two-time Division I state champion Comets had already been ruled ineligible for postseason play and were unable to defend their title.
As a result, Johnson entered this season having seen action in just four high school games since February of 2003. But with the eligibility issue finally behind him, Johnson is focused on dominating this year without any distractions.
Of course, no matter how stellar a senior season he produces, he won't be able to live up to everyone's lofty expectations, especially considering Westchester's standing as a perennial state title contender and national power.
"A lot of people expect you to do unreasonable stuff," says Johnson, who will play his college ball for coach Rick Pitino at Louisville. "People think you can go out and get 100 blocks in one night or something. It's pretty weird. I just play the game to the best of my ability. I just keep on working hard and see what comes."
Between the folks clamoring for more production and those at the other end of the spectrum pumping up his NBA Draft prospects, Johnson spends a lot of his free time trying to tune people out.
"People tell me, ‘You're going to the NBA,'" says Johnson, whose 19-year-old sister, Indi, played her freshman hoop season at Purdue but is transferring to Pepperdine next fall. "I tell them, ‘No, I'm going to college.' I just keep a one-track mind about it. It gets to be hard to stay focused because it gets to you sometimes. But I just think about where I want to go and keep focused on that."
Johnson has help keeping his eyes on the prize. Coach Azzam sees plenty of room for improvement, and he makes sure that mission continues to occupy his young center's thoughts. As much as the Comets' 26th-year head coach raves about Johnson, Azzam is also not shy about noting what Johnson can improve upon.
"There are a lot of things he can get a lot better at," says Azzam, 50, who passed the 500-win mark for his career last season. "Number one, he needs to improve his shot as far as creating his own. Also, he needs to be a little more of a scoring threat. When he gets the ball inside, he's got to score or go to the line. He's a little too unselfish sometimes and gives it up."
That said, there's a reason Johnson is rated so highly despite missing most of his junior season: He can play. And whatever shortcomings he had as a pro coach, Louisville's Pitino has proven to be an exceptional judge of talent and potential at the collegiate level.
"His height is a tremendous asset," says Azzam. "But he moves as fluidly and is as comfortable with the ball as any 6-2 guard. He's so athletic. That part of the game comes so easy for him. And he loves the way we get up and down the floor as an offense.
"This kid could be a track star in any event — that's the kind of athleticism and body control he has," Azzam continues. "What I like about him is that we can play him just inside the 3-point arc, and if they don't come out and guard him, he can hit that shot. If they do, he's such a great passer that he makes them pay."
Sure, Johnson's skills are well documented. But with the uncertainty of just how productive he'll be in his senior season — considering he's only played a handful of meaningful scholastic minutes since he was 15 — it isn't unreasonable to wonder what kind of an immediate impact he can make at Louisville.
Azzam, however, has no doubts.
"He has great shot-blocking ability, and that's where he makes the biggest impact — at the defensive end," says Azzam. "That wingspan has got to be over seven feet, and people just don't get in the key with him there. He doesn't look like he can block it, then he does. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he can definitely make an impact right away."
Given all he's been through, the prospect of a full high school season followed by playing time as a collegiate freshman is music to Johnson's ears.
"It's exciting to me and makes me realize I gotta play even harder," says Johnson, who will turn 18 on May 1. "I'm willing to work hard. I just need the people who know to tell me what to do and I'll do it."
Given her newfound hoop expertise, he's gotta be hoping his mom doesn't read that last part.