On the November night at Madison Square Garden when Jim Boeheim unveiled his secret weapon, forward Wesley Johnson, the Syracuse coach couldn't contain his glee. Known for his prickly demeanor, Boeheim was all smiles as he gushed to a few reporters he knew well, "I told you so. Have I ever lied about a player?"
Johnson had just gone off for 25 points and eight rebounds in a 16-point blowout of defending national champion North Carolina to earn MVP honors in the 2K Sports Classic.
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After a year in mothballs following his transfer from Iowa State, it quickly became obvious Johnson's multi-faceted game could turn the Orange into a legitimate NCAA championship contender.
The only one happier than Boeheim that night was Johnson, a wandering refugee of the basketball recruiting wars who found nirvana and discovered the full potential of his game at Syracuse. "That game boosted my confidence and the team's confidence," Johnson said recently. "After sitting out the last year, I got all the jitters out. I was back playing and back to myself, smiling."
When Syracuse (28-3) returns to the Garden for its quarterfinal game in the Big East Tournament at noon Thursday, it arrives as the outright conference champion and a team that rose to No. 1 in the polls before losing 78-68 to Louisville Saturday. The Orange also were annointed as the NCAA favorite by no less than ESPN commentator Bob Knight.
But there's some question whether Johnson can maintain his brilliant play while recovering from a deeply bruised shooting hand suffered in a fall a month ago against Connecticut.
Boeheim might even rest Johnson to give him a better chance to be healthy for the NCAA Tournament. "Prior to him getting hurt, he was averaging 11 shots a game and 18 points a game," Boeheim said, paying tribute to Johnson's efficiency. "The injury has cut him down. He can't shoot the ball the way he was. But he just keeps playing through it."
Because of the injury, Johnson, who averages 15.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists, has concentrated more on rebounding and defense. Opponents still must respect the threat Johnson poses even as guard Andy Rautins and backup forward Kris Joseph pick up the slack, and that's ironic, considering he transferred to Syracuse because Iowa State coach Greg McDermott questioned his toughness and ability to play hurt.
Lightly recruited out of high school in Corsicana, Texas, Johnson took a convoluted path through prep schools in North Carolina and Detroit before landing at Iowa State when McDermott hired a recruiter Johnson knew. After a stellar freshman season, Johnson missed five games during his sophomore year with a foot injury. When McDermott yelled at him for sitting out a game, their relationship deteriorated beyond repair.
"They knew the swelling got to the point where I couldn't put my shoe on," said Johnson, who underwent foot surgery after that season. "I was thinking more long-term than short-term. I didn't feel one game would affect my role on the team. [McDermott] thought otherwise. I didn't think it was right, and I felt like it was time for me to leave."
It took conviction to sit out a year, but Johnson challenged himself to change his approach to the game. "I just thought about me being a team player more so than anything," he said. "I picked the right school, so, I just bought into the team. Anything they needed me to do - helping with rebounds, playing better defense, helping get guys shots - I was going to do."
McDermott gave Johnson a positive recommendation, as did Kansas coach Bill Self. But the kid who showed up to practice with the Orange last year was a better player and person than Boeheim dared imagine.
"His unselfishness and his rebounding and defense have been big keys for us," Boeheim said. "We like him when he scores, but we have other guys that score, too. Wes is a tremendous kid, one of the nicest kids I've ever coached, if not the nicest. You couldn't ask for a kid to fit in any better."
The player who can dominate a game without dominating the ball turns 23 this July, so, it's unlikely he will pass on the NBA draft to return for his senior year.
"That's my dream, to play in the NBA since I was a little boy," Johnson said. "To think it's right in front of me, it's hard not to think about it. But I'm trying to think about what I can do for my team now instead of worrying about the NBA. I'm thinking about the national championship."