Through six recruiting classes Buzz Williams has been a master of balancing classes. The roster he took over in 2008 was terribly tilted, and a half dozen junior-college transfers later it was smooth sailing, to put it both lightly and briefly — consider an entire recruiting class left when Tom Crean left for Indiana and Williams was named head coach. And perhaps nowhere has Williams balanced a position better than shooting guard.
He inherited one of the top shooting guards in the country in Jerel McNeal, but he needed a quick fix after McNeal’s departure. He was able to rely on then-senior David Cubillan, but he swooped in under the noses of Kansas and Pittsburgh and received a commitment from Darius Johnson-Odom. And in 2010 he received a commitment from five-star shooting guard Vander Blue, keeping the Madison native on the back-burner while using him sporadically as a defensive specialist and slasher. Johnson-Odom racked up individual award after individual award his senior season while Blue simmered on the grill, improving his jumper, maturing and becoming a player the Golden Eagles could rely on.
And as Blue fulfilled his five-star expectations, Todd Mayo came along, albeit inconsistently, as a Big East-ready shooting guard playing behind Johnson-Odom (as a freshman) and Blue (as a sophomore). And shortly before Blue’s historic season, Williams received a commitment from another five-star shooting guard, Memphis native Jajuan Johnson.
The long-term plan –as it’s always been — was all in order for a senior Blue to lead the charge, with a junior Mayo spelling him or, in smaller lineups playing alongside him. Johnson, meanwhile, could be moved along slowly as a freshman, learning the ways of Division I basketball while inserting his outside shooting when needed.
Blue’s curious decision to enter the NBA draft has thrown a wrinkle in Williams’ plans, and now Williams is left with a sudden void of experience — he’s got talent there, but little experience in the spotlight.
[RELATED: Thanks to Chew, Johnson commits to Marquette]
There’s cautious optimism Mayo has put his troubles behind him, and this outlet has been in his corner for some time. But as a 22-year-old junior (he’ll be 23 in March) his ceiling may be limited as a reserve shooter. Again, that’s not a death sentence, but it’s also a fact that Mayo has lacked consistency and now he may be asked to be consistent at 25+ minutes per game. It’s still possible, but Williams knows pretty much what he’ll get from Mayo.
That leaves Johnson. Had Blue and Mayo been in the fold, combined with Jamil Wilson, Juan Anderson and Steve Taylor seeing minutes at the “switchable small forward” role, Johnson’s minutes likely would have been minimal. That’s not to say Johnson won’t be ready as a freshman, but his dependability would have been lessened. If he was ready, great. If not, he was third on the depth chart and had the chance to progress at the same trajectory Blue did.
With Blue out of the mix, though, Johnson becomes an integral part of this season’s rotation. Fellow freshman Duane Wilson may see time off the ball and senior Jake Thomas may fit in, but Johnson will be thrown into the rotation in some form and has large shoes to fill.
He averaged 20.3 points on better than 50 percent shooting as a senior playing a nationally-ranked schedule, and he scored 23 points in Southwind High School’s state championship. The numbers say he struggled in the past month’s Pro-Am, averaging 10.8 points on 40 percent shooting and a dreadful 11 percent from beyond the arc. That means little, if anything, in the grand scheme, yet it’s worth noting.
Johnson didn’t come to Marquette to sit, and Williams didn’t bring in Johnson to sit on the bench for four years. He’s next in line behind McNeal, Johnson-Odom and Blue. It’s also worth noting that Williams may have recruited Johnson with the belief that Mayo’s time at Marquette was almost up (Johnson even mentioned Mayo’s eligibility uncertainty — Mayo had been ruled academically ineligible for the semester when we spoke to him) so there is the chance Williams knew Johnson coud be a No. 2 shooting guard as a freshman. Bumping up his expected production one season won’t stunt his growth; in fact, the added experience in Year 1 should yield dividends, too, in 2014 and beyond.
It’s a tall order for the self-described scorer, but he would have been a rotation player at Alabama or Miami, his second and third choices behind Marquette, respectively. The theory that Marquette is somehow better off without Blue is laughable, but that’s not to say there aren’t positives to take from his departure.
What this will show is Williams’ true coaching ability. This has been tested many times before and he has little to prove in the coaching department — few could legitimately argue he’s not a top-20 coach in the country at this point, maybe better — but in his six recruiting classes he has never dealt with an early departure, let alone an unexpected one.
A wrench has been thrown into Williams’ surgical recruiting plans and the player who will determine whether he’s ready to deal with it, aside from Williams, is the freshman shooting guard Johnson. Most coaches would receive a pass for his team’s best player leaving unexpectedly and only having a seldom-used junior and unknown freshman to use, but three straight Sweet 16 appearances and a conference championship and Elite Eight appearance to boot doesn’t give him this luxury.
Marquette will succeed or fail on more than its shooting guard production, but Johnson’s ability to contribute immediately will go a long way toward one or the other. This isn’t to say expectations have been raised — Johnson was a top-40 recruit, so they are already high — but he has now been put into a role that may require those expectations to be bumped up a year.