TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The hallway outside of the University of Alabama men’s basketball locker room has changed since Avery Johnson arrived two years ago. Whereas the outside wall used to feature photos of various events and athletes competing at Coleman Coliseum, it’s now used to honor those who have gone on to play in the NBA.
The coach wants the league on his players’ minds every day, not just when things like this week’s draft is being held.
“Hopefully it’s the last year that an Alabama player doesn’t get his name called in the first round,” Johnson said Tuesday morning.
One hears all the time about coaches wanting to “change the culture” when they take over a program. Often that just means doing things the way he or she wants. Sometimes they’re small changes, but when they take hold and add up it’s like watching the momentum of an avalanche that can completely transform the landscape.
The Avery Johnson Basketball Camps are another example of how nearly everything surrounding the Crimson Tide no longer looks the same. This week’s individual camp has attracted nearly 400 paying participants, from ages 7 to high school. That’s more than twice as many as two years ago.
Factor in the upcoming elite camp, for players who are very serious about playing basketball at the next level, and the team camps and the total number of participants will likely top 1,000.
“I think it’s a direct correlation to what’s been happening with our program, the anticipation, enthusiasm and excitement,” Johnson said.
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Former players impressed
Meanwhile, there have been more former players around, both as camp instructors and training in the Crimson Tide’s facilities. And not just the ones Johnson coached.
The word is out that Alabama’s doors are open to former players, and they’re being encouraged to get involved whether their names are on that NBA wall or not.
“I just want to be a part of it and be around,” said former point guard Trevor Releford (2010-14), who just re-signed to play in Greece next year.
Similarly, guards Levi Randolph and Retin Obasohan are back in Tuscaloosa after playing the past season together for S.S. Felice Scandone in Italy. Obasohan is originally from Belgium and Randolph is still looking to crack the NBA, so numerous offseason training options are available to both.
Yet here they are, and they like what they see.
“Everywhere you walk, everywhere you look, you can tell that his energy is taking over the campus,” Randolph said.
This is an important summer for the Crimson Tide, and Johnson is doing everything he can to make the most of it. Coming off landing possibly biggest recruiting class in program history, Alabama is taking advantage of the NCAA rule that allows a program to go on an offseason international trip every four years.
The Crimson Tide will visit Canada before the fall semester begins, and just as important is that the team will practice 10 times beginning in mid-July.
Except for Tevin Mack, a guard transferring from Texas who must sit out a year, everyone is already on campus getting a head start to the season. That includes freshmen guards Herb Jones, John Petty and Collin Sexton, and forwards Alex Reese and Galin Smith, who are already turning heads.
“One word can sum it up: impressive,” Obasohan said. “They look fast. They look athletic. They look sharp. I’m excited for those guys.”
‘All our freshmen can play’
Of course, the most buzz has been regarding Sexton, a McDonald’s All-American guard who has the potential to be a one-and-done player.
“I got to watch him work out a couple of times,” Releford said. “It’s going to be a good year. I don’t want to put any pressure on him or anything like that, but if he keeps working it’s going to be a great year.”
Johnson isn’t necessarily looking for the freshmen class to try and carry the 2017-18 Crimson Tide, nor should he.
For leadership, he has sophomore guard Dazon Ingram, sophomore forward Braxton Key and his son Avery Johnson Jr., a junior guard. They, along with junior forward Donta Hall and senior guard/forward Riley Norris will look to take the next steps in their development. Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens will be eligible to play as a sophomore forward/center.
That group will be counted on the most while the coach tries to get as many freshmen up to speed as possible. Three or four could be ready to be part of the rotation at the beginning of the season, and more as it progresses.
However, Johnson couldn’t help but give the team a taste of what’s to come when during a recent workout had the freshmen square off against the veterans.
“Pretty interesting little match there,” he said with a smile. “The competition is good. All of our freshmen can play.”
That’s music to the ears of not only the fans, but the former players, who even though are done at Alabama still want to be part of a proud and winning tradition; one that transcends the college game and has a stronger tie to the pros.
“It’s what we expect at Alabama,” said Randolph, “to be a championship-caliber program.”