PITTSBURGH — Durand Johnson was ready to make the leap from erratic role player to budding star last winter when it disappeared with one awkward step.
Racing down the floor on the break against Wake Forest on Jan. 11, the livewire Pittsburgh forward thought about pulling up for a wide-open 3-pointer when he decided a layup would be the more responsible thing to do.
He slashed into the lane only to have Wake Forest’s Devin Thomas bump him as he neared the basket.
It wasn’t until Johnson got to the free throw line that he felt the twinge in his right knee. He stayed on the floor long enough to make both free throws before walking off the court and into the training room. An MRI revealed a torn ACL and a shredded meniscus, putting an abrupt end to his breakout sophomore season.
Stunned doesn’t begin to describe it.
“I’m thinking I’m fine,'” Johnson said. “I was devastated. I’m thinking, ‘this is my life, what am I going to do? Am I going to play again?'”
Less than nine months later, the knee is fine. So is Johnson. He was cleared for contact two weeks ago, though a balky ankle will keep him briefly sidelined when the Panthers open practice this weekend. While the setback is frustrating, Johnson understand it could be worse.
Most athletes who rehab their ACLs need anywhere from nine months to a year to recover, if not more. Not Johnson, who is already back dunking and playing with the kind of frenetic energy that made him one of the best sixth-men in the ACC before getting hurt.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Johnson said. “I’m blessed to go back and just show out.”
It’s what Johnson does best. He arrived at Pittsburgh as an athletic but raw spot up shooter who never met a 3-pointer he didn’t like to take. Tasked by Dixon to become a more well-rounded player, the light started to come on for the 6-foot-6 Johnson last winter. He scored in double figures eight times in 16 games, including a career-high 17 in a rout of Maryland five days before he was injured.
— Durand Johnson
Dixon always expected Johnson to score. It’s the way Johnson went about it last year that made the difference. Rather than stand behind the 3-point arc and wait for the ball, he began creating off the dribble and using screens to get open. And when he wasn’t open, instead of shooting anyway — a habit that dogged him as a freshman — he would look for someone else.
The player who had 16 assists in 369 minutes during the 2012-13 season had 23 against only 14 turnovers in 317 minutes at the time he was hurt, a development that wasn’t lost on his coach.
“His assist-to-turnover numbers were good,” Dixon said. “He didn’t know what that phrase meant when he got here.”
Johnson does now. Call it a part of the maturation process that every Pitt player needs to go through if they want to see the floor regularly. In a way, watching helped his evolution continue. He studied teammate Lamar Patterson while the versatile forward became one of the best players in the ACC.
Already one of the team’s emotional leaders, Johnson spent part of his rehab giving pep talks during halftime, a way for Dixon to make sure Johnson stayed involved as the Panthers went 26-10 while falling to Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Johnson doesn’t plan to be a bystander this March. If the Panthers want to reach the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2009, they can’t afford to have him in street clothes. His reach and boundless energy makes him one of Pitt’s better perimeter defenders, and his fearlessness gives the Panthers a dynamic option to take some of the pressure off senior guard Cam Wright — who is out 10 weeks with a foot injury — and sophomore forward Michael Young.
Dixon cautioned Johnson isn’t quite where he left off in January. It’s likely he will work Johnson in slowly to make sure the knee is stable. Johnson figures he’s at “86 percent.” He’s so confident in his knee’s health he doesn’t even wear a brace, just a compression sleeve that is as much a fashion statement as a protective device.
Pressed on when he’ll find the other 14 percent, Johnson just laughs. He’s been chasing that 14 percent for years. It’s part of his drive.
“I can play now but you can always be better,” he said. “I’m playing. I’m not thinking about the knee. It’s a great feeling.”