Kevin Gorman: How ex-WPIAL star Cameron Johnson rose to projected NBA 1st-rounder
Mike Rodriguez received the phone call from Pitt director of basketball operations Brian Regan on Easter Sunday in April 2014, with a favor to ask and only a 30-minute warning.
Jamie Dixon was headed to Pittsburgh International Airport, and the former Panthers coach wanted to stop on his way to see Cameron Johnson work out at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Coraopolis during the live recruiting period.
“On an Easter Sunday,” recalled Rodriguez, the OLSH boys basketball coach. “I told Brian, ‘I don’t know how many guys I can get, but I’ll do my best.’ ”
Rodriguez assembled a handful of alums and players so Dixon could get a first-hand look at Johnson, who had sprouted from a 6-foot-2 junior point guard to a 6-8 senior wing who averaged 27.8 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
“Nobody was recruiting him,” Dixon, now at TCU, said by phone Wednesday. “Nationally, he wasn’t even considered on the radar.”
Dixon was so impressed with Johnson, who had offers from Elon, Rice and Wofford, that he offered a scholarship before heading to the airport. As Dixon was leaving OLSH, Johnson followed after and told him he wanted to play for Pitt.
“You just see the future rather than the past,” Dixon said. “I knew he could shoot and he could pass but in the workout he handled the ball better than I’d seen from him. I thought he was going to be a good player. Obviously, everybody can say now that they thought he was going to be an NBA player. I took a lot of abuse.”
Johnson isn’t just going to be an NBA player. He is projected to be a first-round pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, with mock drafts having him going anywhere from the Orlando Magic at No. 16 to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 24.
It’s an incredible story, considering Johnson redshirted as a freshman and graduated from Pitt in three years before playing his final two seasons at North Carolina. Along with Murray State’s Ja Morant, Johnson is one of the poster boys for under-recruited prospects who have blossomed in college.
“He might be the only one who was 4.0 (GPA) in high school, I’ll say that,” Dixon said, with a laugh.
Actually, Johnson had a 4.4 and was the class salutatorian. Before Dixon’s impromptu scouting trip, Johnson appeared headed for a second-tier Ivy League program.
Instead, he became a shooting star.
Johnson converted 45.7% from 3-point range and averaged 16.9 points as a senior, when he was a first-team All-ACC selection and led the Tar Heels to a share of the regular-season conference title. But Johnson insists he’s not just a shooter. At Carolina, he expanded his overall floor game, from defense to rebounding.
“I always thought of Cam as a warrior,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen him play sick, through injury. His last game in the playoffs, he had pneumonia. We couldn’t get him off the court. He’s a good representative of Pittsburgh. He wears his heart on his sleeve. Even though he left Pitt, he’s a Pittsburgh guy.”
Now, unbelievable as it sounds, a Pittsburgh guy is being called the best pure shooter in the NBA Draft, a catch-and-shoot stretch four who can create space.
“My goodness, to say you coached a player who’s going to get drafted in the NBA,” Rodriguez said, “that’s a rare occurrence.”
It would put Johnson in rare company in Western Pennsylvania. He would become the first player from the WPIAL to go in the first round of the NBA Draft since 1997, when Danny Fortson of Shaler was selected 10th overall by Milwaukee.
Since 1971, only four other Western Pennsylvania products were NBA first-round picks: Armon Gilliam of Bethel Park (second overall, 1987), Brad Davis of Monaca (15th, 1977), Maurice Lucas of Schenley (14th, 1974) and Kenny Durrett of Schenley (fourth, 1971).
In a draft filled with talented teenagers, Johnson is a 23-year-old, fifth-year senior who is selling his experience as a strength. Rodriguez describes him as “the epitome of a gym rat.” Johnson told teams he hasn’t peaked.
“I’m definitely older than many people there,” Johnson said during NBA Draft combine interviews, “but I feel like I can definitely benefit, that I can step onto the court right away and play; not only that, I feel like I have a lot of room for growth.”
That’s what Dixon saw during the workout at OLSH and what he saw in Johnson’s first practice at Pitt. Dixon wondered whether Johnson, with a slight build, would be tough enough to handle a physical practice against the Panthers’ upperclassmen.
“But he never backed down,” Dixon said. “I knew then that he was going to be a great player.”
Dixon made sure to clarify it wasn’t an “I told you so,” instead crediting Johnson’s family for instilling academics as much as athletics into his foundation. Rodriguez echoed those sentiments about the family, even though Johnson’s younger brother Donovan, aka Puff, transferred to Moon last year.
With Cameron Johnson on the cusp of realizing a dream, the men who coached him couldn’t help but be happy for how far he has come. And Johnson shared the story of his rise from off-the-radar prospect to projected NBA first-round pick with executives during team interviews.
“I explained to them that I’ve kind of taken a different route,” Johnson said. “Going through high school, my recruiting was different than most. The time in which I’ve blossomed into what I’ve become and what I will become is just a little later than a lot of other people.”
And a lot more than anyone ever imagined.
Just don’t say it didn’t come without warning.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .