DESTIN, Fl. — Basketball is getting its due in Destin this week. The SEC is boasting of its record on the court in the last year, and Alabama head coach Avery Johnson is excited, too. He has his best recruiting class arriving on campus and a key transfer ready to play this season.
Here’s what Johnson talked about with the media on Wednesday:
There’s a report out about a contract being close to done with Arizona for a home-and-home. What can you say about that? Was that a no-brainer once Greg got hired?
“Well, I don’t know if it was a no-brainer. We’ve always discussed about how we need to improve our nonconference schedule and how we need to have some high-level teams come on our campus. So with that discussion, we started calling a lot of the top teams around the country trying to schedule games. Fortunately Arizona is a team that is a well-respected team. We haven’t finalized a deal yet but we’re deep in discussions. We’ll start at Arizona and then next year they’ll come on our campus. So we’re really excited about that. We know we’re going to have to prepare much better and continue to recruit at a high level to play teams like that. But in terms of us trying to improve our nonconference schedule, that’s the team that we engage with. Obviously Greg helped us. He’s really serious about helping and continuing to grow our basketball brand. He was a major part of that negotiation.”
Can you confirm the years real quick?
“This year we go to Arizona and next year they’ll come back to Tuscaloosa.”
What’s been the key to the improvement of SEC basketball in the years that you’ve been here?
“Well first, I just think the level of coaches and the quality of coaches that we have across the board now. Without naming guys, when you look at the guys coaching in our league, these guys can really coach. Now we’re recruiting at a high level. It’s great. If a kid doesn’t sign with Alabama and he signs with another school in the SEC, that’s great for our conference. But I just think when we’ve added guys like Ben Howland, those type of guys, now Cuonzo is going to Missouri, Will is going to LSU to go along with all the other great coaches that we have in this league, I think that’s where it starts. Then obviously recruiting. Now you see Alabama with a high-level recruiting class to go along with the Floridas and the Kentuckys. I think it’s great for our league. You have to have the recruits, the players. You have to have the coaches that can recruit and can coach. Then hopefully you’ll see a spike in attendance at home games. For us, we need to do a better job of protecting our home court. From there, as I was alluding to earlier, scheduling better. We think our nonconference schedule is the best one that we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’re playing some games. You’ve already seen we’re playing in the Barclays Classic, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. Playing some high level teams.”
Coach Calipari said you have two really good guards now, so you have a chance in every game. Is that the way you see it?
“Absolutely. I think ball handling and decision making is critical. While everybody may want to talk about big guys, you’ve got to have great guard play. And you have to have speed and decision making and guys that can shoot it and pass it and shoot it, guys that can problem solve. I wish I could tell you that I have a perfect offensive system. Nobody does. You look at the Warriors, Cleveland, they have a lot of problem solvers. We think with the guys that we have coming back, with the guys that we have coming in, we have more depth at the guard position. Not just specific to the two guys Cal was talking about. We think we have the depth across the board at that area but those two guys coming in strengthens our position.”
Would you be surprised if two or three freshmen started this season?
“No, it wouldn’t shock me at all. But we haven’t had our first workout yet, we haven’t had our first real practice, which won’t happen until July. We’ll get those 10 practices going into our Canadian trip. I just think over time, we’re going to put the best five on the floor. We’re not going to mess around this year with not having a rotation earlier in the season. We’re not going to wait. We’ve got to have that eight-, nine-man rotation early. I’m not playing 11 or 12 guys. But at the same time, those guys know those practices are going to be as competitive as it’s ever been since I came to Alabama. Guys are going to have a lot of time to prove that they are in the rotation, because we have to have a rotation earlier this season.”
What are you getting in Tevin Mack, the transfer from Texas?
“Right now he’s not enrolled at Alabama in the first summer session. Still waiting on some additional information, transcripts and stuff. Hopefully we’ll have him for the second summer session. But we think he can really be a good player.”
What’s your NBA Finals prediction?
“NBA Finals? Ha! First of all, this is the least amount of NBA basketball I’ve ever watched in my life. So let’s get that out on the table.”
Because it’s been so bad, or what?
“No. No, you said that. Because I’ve been focusing on Alabama, trying to figure out a way to have more assists to turnovers in a game, make wide-open shots, not make double errors on consistent plays, figure out a way to not have seven straight possessions without scoring. So that’s what I’ve been working on.
“But all that being said, Steve Kerr is a good friend. I played for the Warriors. Obviously I’m cheering for the Warriors and Steve. But I don’t know, there’s just something about the level where LeBron is playing right now. I think it’s going to go to seven games. Maybe LeBron hits a game-winning shot in game seven.”
You’ve been successful with some graduate transfers. What are your thoughts on those new rules?
“We’ve been forced into the graduate transfers being a major part of our team because of where the depth of our roster and experience was when I took over. We needed some help. I think if a graduate transfer transferred to a school, I think he needs to get his master’s degree within two years or the school needs to be penalized. If a graduate transfer just transfers to play basketball and not get his master’s degree, I think the school should be penalized if he doesn’t get his master’s. We feel good about Bola and Corban getting their master’s at Alabama. We feel really good about that. I think the school should be penalized if they don’t get their master’s.”
Now that it’s done, how much contact did you have with Braxton Key as he went through the NBA draft process before taking his name out?
“We stayed in constant contact. He went through the process, the process played out, he’s back on campus ready to have more of a leadership role and we’re excited to have him back. He makes us a much better basketball team. He went through the process, the process played out basically how I thought it was going to play out. But at the same time, he had to make the decision that he wanted to put two feet back in, return to school and be a major part of our team.”
What have you found about the talent in Alabama?
“I think the talent is pretty good. That’s why us signing John Petty and Herb Jones and Alex Reese in 2017 was critical for us. We thought they could not only help us, but we wanted them in the SEC. I think moving forward, there are some awfully talented kids. Can’t mention any names. We want to make sure that we stay in play with those kids and hopefully try to convince them that playing in the SEC and specifically at Alabama is something that can not only help them grow and develop, but down the road, potentially have a professional career.”
John Petty’s coach, Jack Doss, compared John Petty to Dominique Wilkins, and he’s been coaching for a while. What kind of talent do you see in John Petty?
“Well I don’t know about Dominique. I would say more of Clyde Drexler. A slasher, still can shoot, can pass the ball. He’s an underrated passer and decision-maker and as I alluded to earlier, that’s what we need. Dominique was more of a power dunker, small forward. I look at John as being more of a Clyde Drexler.”
In terms of leadership, what does Collin Sexton bring?
“Confidence. My son calls it ‘swag,’ or ‘swagger.’ A guy that believes in his abilities but also makes his teammates better. He’s not going to be afraid of the big stage. There were games in my first two years where I looked at our team and I thought I saw a little bit of stage fright. Hopefully we’ve grown and matured to a level where we’re not going to have any stage fright, where we go to play a team, or when that team comes in our building. We need some more alpha dogs. I think we’re on track.”
Was getting to play in Huntsville a priority for you all after the atmosphere this season?
“Absolutely. We had a great time in Huntsville. Sold out. The energy that was in the building was unbelievable. Really excited about returning to Huntsville.”
There’s been some talk that the NBA draft rules benefit the NBA more than the players, or that it can be tough on college basketball. Do you have any thoughts on the process or how you’d want to see it changed?
“I think the process is solid. Players want to get a grade. You’re able to contact what’s called the Undergraduate Advisory Council. They’ll give you a grade on whether a player is going to get drafted or not drafted. The kid still decides independent of what the grade is, especially if it’s a non-drafted status, to be able to declare for the draft, which means he’s probably not going to get invited to Chicago or if he does get invited to Chicago, then there’s still some time after that to go and work out for some teams. They get an idea of what other general managers are going to say about them, and then they can make a better informed decision about whether to stay in the draft or not. May 24, I wish that particular drop-dead date when a kid has to withdraw from the draft, I wish we could move it back to May 17, or immediately after Chicago, pre-draft camps, a day or two after that. But I think overall it’s a solid process.”
Entering this third year, the language you’re using is a little more forceful. How much pressure are you setting on this one year?
“First of all, this idea that Year 3 is a make-or-break year for our program…”
I didn’t say that.
“No, you didn’t say that. I don’t get that. Maybe that’s for some of the pundits. I’m not saying that’s us shying away from wanting to be a 20 win team or wanting to be an NCAA tournament team. But at the same time, we’re building a program and you don’t build a program in three years. What I’ve been saying all along, I feel like now that the foundation is laid, now let’s start building a house. And you know, we got the foundation laid but we don’t have the frame up, we don’t have a roof up. We have to keep working and grinding. This is a year when we want to take another step forward. We’ve done it. We were 8-10 in the conference the first year, 10-8 last year and won a game more than we won the last year. So I would say just keep moving in a positive direction. Whatever that means, we’ll have to figure out how to continue to grow from whatever result that is. We’ll continue to get better. We have a new coach on our staff. We have six new players. People forget about Daniel Giddens as the sixth guy, or the first guy, however you want to put it, he would like to be known as the first guy. But we have to get rolling. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Canada, play some games in Canada, build some new relationships in Canada. All of this stuff is strategic. We spent a lot of time planning and thinking about how we want to build the program. You remember that press conference, what I’ve been saying all along, we want to build a sustainable product on the floor. We don’t want to get in the NCAA tournament one year and you don’t see us for another three or four years. That’s where we’re trying to get.”
What conversations have you had with Greg about Coleman, creating a more student-friendly environment?
“I’m not going to talk about specifics. But those conversations have taken place and we’ve covered a lot of ground. What I would say is, and I’ll let Greg speak for himself, at some point in the future you’ll probably here some information on what our plans are. But now is not the time.”