RICHMOND, Va. – James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891 as a way of entertaining a rowdy gym class during the cold New England winters in Springfield, Mass. But there’s no way, watching his students hoisting a soccer ball into peach baskets, that he could have envisioned someone having as much fun playing the game as Melvin Johnson.
There’s nothing boring about the way Johnson, a VCU sophomore guard, plays Naismith’s game. Johnson’s style is loquacious, exuberant and ostentatious. Even against the backdrop of VCU’s breakneck style, “Havoc”, and despite the wide shadow cast by electric guard and NCAA steals leader Briante Weber, Johnson still manages to stand out.
A Bronx-native, Johnson’s game is replete with New York flair, complete with pirouettes, fakes, double-clutches and shimmies. The show does not end at the final horn. An emerging press conference darling, he nicknamed his trademark floater “The Melvin” last year. Earlier this season, he told reporters that one particular acrobatic shot attempt was called “The Boogiedown”.
Johnson’s panache has been obvious from day one, and there were moments of greatness during his freshman season, when he averaged 6.9 points per game for the Rams. But he also shot 28 percent (23-of-81) from beyond the 3-point arc and struggled on defense at times.
But with a year under his belt, Johnson has grown into more than just a flashy role player given to the occasional YouTube highlight. He’s quickly becoming one of VCU’s most important players. Johnson is averaging 10.4 points per game this season, third on the team, and has become the Rams’ most dangerous 3-point threat, shooting 40 percent (52-of-129) from beyond the arc.
In his second season, the substance of Johnson’s game is rising to meet its stylishness.
At least some of Johnson’s freshman year inconsistency can be traced to conditioning. VCU, with its non-stop, full-court press, plays one of the more physically demanding systems in the country. But Johnson signed with the Rams late and didn’t arrive on campus until August prior to his rookie season. By then, he’d missed weeks of critical preseason workouts.
“First, it started with getting in the right shape to play in this system,” he said recently. “Coming in late, I didn’t really have a chance to do what these other guys did and I think I played out of shape my entire freshman year.”
His improved fitness has enhanced his play on both sides of the ball. Not only does he have fresh legs underneath him to knock down jumpers, but he’s able to keep pace with his man on defense.
But Johnson also owes his all-around improvement to greater conditioning of the mind as well as of the body. He’s always had an ability to score the basketball, and in high school, not much else was asked of him. It took Johnson time to learn VCU’s defensive concepts. In the past, it was rarely offensive mistakes that led Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart to pull Johnson from games. More often than not, it was some type of defensive lapse. But as his defense has improved, his minutes have increased.
“When you play teams for the first time in conference play, you look back at the tapes, and so we watched Fordham from last year, we watched La Salle from last year, we watched Dayton. The guy was disastrous on defense last year, so he’s really made progress there. He’s still not Gary Payton, but he’s come a long way and he’s making progress,” Smart says of Johnson.
Johnson’s emergence comes at a crucial time for the Rams. VCU graduated prolific 3-point shooter Troy Daniels, who hit 124 treys in 2012-13, following last season. Not only did the Rams need a scorer to replace Daniels’ 12 points per game, but they needed a 3-point shooter to stretch the floor. Johnson, despite his long-range shooting woes last year, was the most logical choice.
“At first, I didn’t really want to put that much pressure on myself. That’s a heck of a shooter,” Johnson said of replacing Daniels. “But it started in the summer. Coach Smart yelled at me. He really got into me when I passed up an open three. That was an indicator that he was going to give me that type of light to shoot when I’m open, and that type of confidence gave me the backbone to shoot the three. It was definitely a booster.”
Johnson has responded this year by knocking down an average of 2.0 three-pointers per game. It’s not Daniels territory – he averaged 3.4 triples per game last year – but it’s enough to make an impact. On Dec. 21, Johnson buried 8-of-11 threes and scored a career-high 27 points in a win over Virginia Tech.
“Any wide-open three he has, he can take, and I want him to take,” Smart said.
As good Johnson is at making head-turning plays, Smart believes the next phase of Johnson’s development will be mastering the simple ones. When he drives and draws two and three defenders, Smart wants Johnson to make the easy pass, rather than attempted a difficult, circus shot.
“To be honest with you, I like Mel shooting open threes. When he drives, he probably needs to pass it more, but he does have a nice floater game. He can shoot it when open, but if he draws defenders, he needs to find his teammates.”
While Johnson’s development isn’t complete, he’s already come a long way in a short period. One thing is for certain, watching Johnson’s maturation, like every other facet of his game, should be fun to watch.