PITTSBURGH — These days, just about every college coach in the country wishes he had visited Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, Georgia a couple of years ago. Truth is, back then, only one of them actually did. It was Avery Johnson of Alabama, who just saw something in the team’s guard, Collin Sexton.
“I saw that ‘it’ factor. You know we talk about that when you see it with players,” Johnson said Friday. “They have it when they walk in the door — that confidence, ability to navigate their way out of difficult situations. Even though they get knocked down, they don’t stay down.”
Sexton’s “it” has become this: inclusion in conversation about the best guard in the country and a second-round NCAA Tournament matchup against the East’s No. 1 seed Villanova and the “it” factor of guard Jalen Brunson.
The Crimson Tide’s freshman guard never considered going anywhere else to college, thanks to Johnson. “Honestly, he just told me that he believed in me. And that was big because nobody else really knew what I could do,” Sexton said, having scored 25 points against Virginia Tech Thursday night. “He was one of the first few coaches who came and started recruiting me pretty hard and we just built that trust.”
That belief and trust in an overlooked guard came easily and naturally for Johnson, who never was drafted by an NBA team and was waived by the Nuggets on Christmas Eve of his second season and still lasted 16 years in the league. He hit a championship clinching shot, for the Spurs against the Knicks in 1999 and coached the Mavericks and the Nets — all because he always managed to make someone believe he had his own “it” factor.
Johnson still is working hard, still digging as a third-year college coach trying to make a splash at a football school. “For an NBA coach, out on the recruiting trail, he’s grinding. I see him everywhere,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Alabama’s coach knows how much his young players love the NBA and he tells them stories about it. He sees a lot of the old Phoenix Suns, for instance, in Villanova’s flexibility and shooting ability. Those tales no doubt will help Sexton, a likely lottery pick in the draft this year. But Johnson makes sure he doesn’t lay it on too thick. “It’s more about serving our student-athletes,” he said. “My career is over, all right? I tell them that all the time: ‘This is about me serving you.’ ”
His team has served notice that it can play with anyone, what with a good shooter in John Petty (20 points against Virginia Tech) and an assortment of low-post big men, all complementing Sexton. “He’s a great player. It’s not just him,” Brunson said. “They have all great pieces around him. Collin does a great job being aggressive and getting his teammates involved.”
Having attracted that group and drawn national attention to Alabama basketball is yet another challenge surmounted by Johnson, who coached the Mavericks to the NBA Final and stood strong through some rough years with the Nets. When he was asked the other day how he looked at the latter experience, he said, “I don’t look at that experience at all.”