Every time you watch Melvin Johnson drop a feathery floater through the net or admire his ability to knife through wafts of defenders, you can give a little thanks to the city the produced the VCU freshman guard, New York, New York.
A native of the White Plains neighborhood in the Bronx, Johnson, like the umpteen basketball stars the city has churned out over the years – Lew Alcindor, Mark Jackson, Bernard King, Bob Cousy, Tiny Archibald, Rafer Alston to name a few – owes some of his game to the anthropology of New York City hoops.
“You’d be surprised how intense it can be,” Johnson said of games in his hometown.
New York has always been a brash, in-your-face metropolis; the pace fast, the personalities colorful. New York basketball is the same way.
The culture of playground hoops is legendary. It’s not just Rucker Park, the most famous launching pad for city ballers. It’s everywhere. It’s places like the park near Melvin Johnson’s house, where he’d crowd around the court with sometimes 30 or more guys, waiting for a game. When you win, you retain the right to stay on the court. If you lose, you might not see the asphalt again that day. The unforgiving, double-rimmed goals can mute the effect of jump shooters, so ball skills and creativity are often the avenue to victory.
“You’ve just really got to create,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of people talking smack. A lot of older guys come to the court and they challenge you just because you’re an okay player. It’s actually fun growing up in that kind of environment knowing you can just go to the park and get a lot of good games.”
You can see a lot of the Bronx in Johnson’s game, the manner in which maneuvers around the paint on the way to the rim, how he threads passes between defenders. It’s also made him a resourceful player.
The top 100 recruit, who picked the Rams over Villanova, Marquette, Memphis and Dayton this summer, was billed as an outstanding spot-up shooter. The only problem is that Johnson is shooting just 20 percent (9-of-46) from the outside the arc this season, “thinking too much”, he admits. Undeterred, he started putting the ball on the floor with impressive results. Johnson is shooting 57 percent (37-of-65) from inside the 3-point line this season, many of them layups and floaters inside eight feet.
“When I got here I showed coach I could put it on the floor better than they thought they recruited,” Johnson, averaging 6.2 points per game this season, said. “The three-ball, it’s been trouble for me this year, so after practice and on my own time I’ve really been tightening my handle, just using angles to get by defenders so I know I won’t have to rely on the three-ball to keep me on the floor.”
It’s an approach similar to the one he took growing up as a self-described “pudgy kid” who used to camp out in the corners and fire 3-pointers. Eventually, defenders caught on to the pudgy chucker, so he developed his floater.
“They just run you off the 3-point line, so you have to find balance,” he said. “I couldn’t go dunk on somebody. I had to just learn to get in between.”
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Johnson has since lost the pudge, but kept the floater. It’s one of the reasons he’s emerged as VCU’s best offensive weapon off the bench. On a number of occasions this season, VCU Coach Shaka Smart has called Johnson’s number with the shot clock winding down to create in the clutch.
“He’s got unbelievable potential,” Smart said. “He’s potentially the best scorer of anyone on our team, maybe other than Treveon Graham, way better than those other guys, potentially.”
One portion of the “potentially” for Smart is Johnson’s acumen on the defensive end of the court. There’s little question the Rice High School and St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) product is a gifted scorer, but defense is where you earn your minutes under Smart.
Johnson joined VCU in July, weeks into summer workouts. He had to catch up not only physically, among a group of players built for one of the most exhausting styles of play in college basketball, but tactically as well. Transitioning from playing high school defense to playing “Havoc” is an adjustment for anyone.
“Like going from geometry to calculus,” says Johnson, a math buff.
But Smart’s message was clear, play defense on the basketball court or guard the water cooler.
“He’s making progress,” Smart said. “He’s just got to continue to understand everything that we want for him to do as a coaching staff and for him to completely buy into it. He’s a guy that takes a lot of pride in his game and works very hard, but he’s never been asked to do some of the things that we’re asking him to do, and like most freshmen, he’s not exactly sure how to respond to that.”
Johnson appears to be gaining traction in that department. After averaging 10.1 minutes and 4.7 points in his first six games, Johnson has improved to nearly 17 minutes and 7.2 points in his next 10, all while showcasing a brand of confident, improvisational basketball.
But don’t mistake Johnson for a flashy player, he says. He considers his game “old school”. Flavorful, perhaps, but not flashy. Not new wave, just New York.
“I think I’m real comfortable,” he said. “I expect to produce in a certain kind of way, and I think Coach expects that as well. He gives me the confidence to sort of play my game, just stay poised and play within yourself, and that’s what I try to do.”