Digesting a Non-Decision: London Johnson

This one felt different, didn’t it? I’ve been digesting this for the past couple of days and thought I’d just jot a few thoughts.

It was hard to parse all of the rumors and rumblings on Thursday. Allegedly, high 4-star PG London Johnson, Virginia’s top recruiting target in the class of 2023 and presumed lock to commit for a while, was still planning to do so just days before his April 14th announcement date. And then, he wasn’t. The planned announcement time of 3:30p.m. came and went with radio silence from his camp. Sifting through the speculation and reports on social media was cryptic but some consistent threads emerged across sources. He was no longer planning on committing to Virginia, with multiple implications that NIL deals played a significant role in his change of mind.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that CTB era Virginia has lost out on a coveted high-profile recruit, and it seems like every time it happens, or there’s a transfer out of the program, the hand wringing begins. I’ve never really bought into these concerns very much. Yes, the recent challenges to attract and/or keep significant talent on the recruiting trail outside of Beekman and Shedrick has been impactful. At its core, this past season was the least talented roster CTB has fielded since initially rebuilding the program. That being said, we still have been able to attract high quality talent on the transfer portal and we just recently re-filled our coffers with our best recruiting class since the core of the title team. When we’ve lost out on targeted recruits, it’s often either been because of the perception of lack of opportunity or the lack of alignment with the program’s culture and style. When we’ve lost transfers to the portal, it’s almost uniformly been players who were not thriving (and either haven’t had much success after leaving or have thrived but against lesser competition), and those who have replaced them have proven to be net positive. Under CTB, the most core players we’ve lost are Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson, where we did downgrade with Nigel Johnson but also paved the way for Braxton Key – a key championship component, especially against Texas Tech.

The tried-and-true model has always been to allow other programs to target the top tier flight-risk prospects, find the best program fits within the top 50-150 range, focus heavily on player development and system experience, and fill in the gaps with quality transfers. In reality, as a borderline 5-star player, London Johnson did not fit this mold, but perhaps the disappointment stemmed from the fact that it truly looked like he was going to be the exception that marked a transition into our ability to draw the highest end talent. He was a 5 Pillars guy who had been highly prioritized and all but formally committed to the program. So when he delayed his decision not one, or two, but three separate times it felt like a more significant missed opportunity than in the past. Many times we’ve seen a similar story unfold where a similar style recruit – Keels, Bacot, etc., has kept UVa deep into the running, only to select the Duke and UNC’s of the world. But, ostensibly, the programs causing Johnson to swerve at the last minute were USC and Georgia – hardly basketball power houses. Surely programs with much less recent success and without the track record of player development.

No, this was our first taste of a NIL casualty. A player who, otherwise, would have been wearing orange and blue in 2023. And this is why I think there’s some reason to perk our ears up in concern this time around. It’s not because of the specific player we lost – by all accounts we’ve already moved onto other quality targets and there’s always the transfer portal – but it is how we lost him and to who.

The NIL is such a new player to college sports it was bound to start shaping the competitive landscape sooner than later. In football, it appears that Tennessee has lured a 5-star QB with an $8 million NIL deal. In hoops, Armando Bacot, the returning ACC player of the year for UNC has said he’ll return for this senior season. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky’s National Player of The Year, has hinted strongly at doing so as well. Depending on the source, Bacot was a potential lottery pick and Tshiebwe was likely a Day 2 pick in the NBA draft. Both would have likely left prior to the NIL, and both will likely be compensated significantly as they return to their schools next season. On the flip side, and in the case of London Johnson, USC and Georgia are not schools that would recently have been able to compete with UVa for players so aligned with our needs and attention, but both are programs with no scarcity of resources. As such, UVa seems to be getting hit from both sides at the moment. Programs previously regularly having to mitigate turnover to the pro game are better equipped to delay or stave off those losses. Programs without the coaching, on-court success, or track record of player development, are newly able to compete for talent.

I’ve seen much clamoring that if players are willing to give up on the program for money then they aren’t 5 Pillar guys and to that idea, I scoff. Ty Jerome and, certainly, Kyle Guy left the program early despite not being lottery picks because it was their opportunity to align their compensation with their successes. Trey Murphy III did the same, and neither Jay Huff nor Sam Hauser returned for their super senior seasons for the same reason. Justin Anderson would have probably benefitted from another year in the program, showing what he could do without injury. Sure, playing against the best has its appeal, but that goes hand in hand with being compensated for one’s talents. Most players, including our own, take these opportunities when they are presented. London Johnson absolutely was and is a 5 Pillars-type player. CTB identified him and recruited him aggressively as such. We didn’t lose him because he suddenly lacked the characteristics for which he was recruited, we lost him because someone presented him with an opportunity that he didn’t think he could forego. In many of his interviews, CTB has even said that it is, “right” for players to pursue those opportunities as they present themselves.

So does this mean that we’re doomed? A program lost in the middle of NIL as our coach’s principles staunchly keep us from pursuing that angle aggressively? Hardly. I’ve watched quite a few podcasts and interviews where CTB touches on the topic and it’s clearly not an issue he’s choosing to ignore. He’s clearly aware of and has spoken about the mechanics involved and the way in which donors and sponsors can play a role in this. He openly embraces the idea of his players benefitting financially from the NIL. He’s acknowledged that they’re looking into the impact on their end and evaluating the role it will play moving forward. They’re doing their due diligence.

On the other hand, I would still describe his words more in the “wait and see” sphere. He’s talked about how with other schools, the NIL is their entire pitch to recruits. He’s also talked about how the NIL is, “part of it too,” but that he still leads with the development, the academics, etc. He’s talked about “market value” a lot and seemed to down play, a bit, how much most players are really worth in terms of what they could return. In fact, on one of Isaac McKneely’s interviews he discussed how he isn’t really focused on the NIL because, in his view, if he focuses on his development and accomplishes his goals, all of that will follow. An admirable and potentially scarcely held view, but one that had the clear subtext of being able to have gotten more on the NIL front elsewhere. So, while I don’t think CTB is resistant to being more aggressive on the NIL front, I do think he’s erred on the side of caution with regard to incorporating it too much in his approach or investment. It makes sense. Focusing on material gains feels like it undercuts much of the message on which he drives. And yet, it also still is a part of what he encourages when he says that players should go after opportunity presented to them.

In Conclusion

What does it all mean? Surely, no one could possibly know conclusively. We’re now in the mix for 5-star PF Malik Reneau (UPDATED: He’s already committed to Indiana) and have moved on to different PG targets in 2023. If we continue to see similar recruiting losses to programs we wouldn’t normally expect, it could signal the beginning of a trend. But, perhaps, this is really no different than we’ve seen previously. If the Duke, UNC, Kentucky’s of the world are keeping their guys longer, theoretically that means they’ll have less room to snap up as many future recruits. If those top guys end up chasing money from lesser programs, we may still be in the same situation where the same quality of 50-150 type guys look to us as an elite program where they can grow and win. Certainly there has been no dearth of options or interest in the wake of Johnson. Maybe, and I emphasize maybe, this does cap our ceiling in terms of emerging as a national player who will regularly attract and retain 5-star recruits, but if so, that’s really no different than the position we’ve been in during the entirety of the CTB era. I do know that CTB is insanely competitive and that the program has been willing to invest big money in the stadium, in the facilities, and in many ways across player development. I have no doubt that they have their finger on this pulse and will be working to find that balance of integrating the NIL into their plans/discussions with their future recruits without sacrificing their overall message. It’s possible we may not end up with the budget to compete at the top of the recruit spectrum, but there will be plenty of high-quality players, like those coming in this season, who are the right fits. The program is simply too good and these are adjustments that can and will be made to refine the process.

While I don’t worry about our ability to attract talent and draw similar classes to that of 2016 and 2022 moving forward, I do think the overall path will be tougher. Not only does the transfer portal make continuity increasingly difficult (how many players with Huff’s talent/impact will be willing to wait as long as he did?), but the NIL increasing other programs’ ability to keep their own 5-star talent in their system longer will lessen that advantage that we’ve held recently. It’s great that we’ve been upgrading within the portal, but now that we once again seem to be heading into a season with an abundance of depth, how well will we keep those with upside engaged? This is another area where the NIL will push the boundaries, as sitting doesn’t just mean less playing time, it also means less exposure and opportunity.

In short, it’s very easy to over-react immediately after the most disappointing season in the CTB era; especially when there are so many new variables to the college hoops scene. Perhaps it would be worth breaking all of those contributing factors down sometime. But, either way, I do not think it’s accurate to view the NIL as some kind of death knell to the program’s ability to stay competitive at the most elite level. We should continue to play a very similar role to the one we have; a dominant force over the last decade. It probably does, however, make our lives a little more difficult; it makes the challenges that we do face as a whole a little harder to navigate. Perhaps that’s why the London Johnson situation felt like such a gut punch. It signaled that we likely are cemented into being the team that will always have to over-achieve with 4-star guys and culture….

But that’s what we’ve always done. That’s the program we’ve grown to love watching.

3 responses to “Digesting a Non-Decision: London Johnson”

  1. Another great analysis that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I agree with you that there is no reason to panic about what NIL will mean. Thx!

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  2. Good chance Kihei stayed because of NIL too, no? Shows how much $ we’re talking about if so (certainly no shortage of deep-pocketed alums/biz folk around here). Wait, what if it’s a nefarious Hokie biz owner paying him to stay!? Jk, jk. But it could’ve affected London’s decision, esp. if he reclassifies. G League average is around $37k…overseas pro ball is still overseas (far from home) & there’s just a wee bit of instability in Europe rn (thanks, Putin).

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  3. I don’t view this basketball season as a negative. Given what UVA had gone through the last three years a season like this was predictable.

    The turnover the last three years has been dramatic starting with Hunter, Guy and Jerome leaving early and Salt graduating. We go into 2020 losing four starters and still finished 14-6 in the ACC one game out of first place.

    In 2021 we actually won the ACC and lost three players to professional basketball and three went into the portal. This was Bennett’s fifth regular season first place finish and during the time period that Bennett had coached Duke has only won the regular once outright, this year.

    Trey Murphy had planned on redshirting but when the NCAA said “2021 won’t count against your eligibility” he decided to play. That effected us in a couple of ways (1) Trey had such a good year he decided to go into the draft, (2) his play kind of displaced Justin McCoy and that probably led to him transferring.

    Anyway it took Gardner and Franklin a while to pick up the Packline but 21 wins given all the turnover wasn’t all that bad. The team improved greatly over the course of the season. When we shot well we usually won.

    The new class has a lot of talent and with what we have returning the 22-23 team I project as a sweet sixteen type of team!

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