ST. BONAVENTURE — Chris Johnson remembers all too well the rocky start to his Division I basketball career.
It’s what makes the success he’s having now seem all the more satisfying.
Johnson, who signed with the Bonnies in the spring of 2011, didn’t arrive on campus until nearly a full week after classes began that August while waiting to officially be cleared by the NCAA.
Once practice began, things only got worse. He spent the first couple of days on the sideline dealing with a minor neck injury, and the next several trying to get back into basketball shape after taking the previous year off to be with an ailing family member back in his native North Preston, Nova Scotia.
Johnson played just 24 total minutes throughout the first seven games of the 2011-12 season, with a pair of ‘Did Not Plays’ against Arkansas St. and Buffalo.
The team’s faithful wondered if he’d ever truly be a factor in a Bona uniform.
“It was a lot going on, man,” Johnson said. “Everything was just like a different world coming where I was coming from. All the stuff happening back home and learning how to deal with that and still practice ... it’s a lot going on.”
Johnson got his first real opportunity in early December against Canisius — the same game in which senior guard Michael Davenport injured his shoulder — and made the most of it, scoring 19 points in 25 minutes.
From then on, he was a regular in the rotation. The junior college transfer had 10 games of at least eight points, all off the bench, including another 19-point outburst (against St. Francis, Pa.) and a big 14-point day against UMass in the A-10 Tournament semifinals. His maturation, along with that of other role players, was a key reason Bona was able to win a conference championship.
“Towards the end of the year, I just got comfortable,” he said. “I kind of made this like my home. Dealing with the classes, dealing with the practices and the off-season workouts. I think that helped me a lot.”
Johnson’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches. All offseason, coach Mark Schmidt said that Johnson would be one of the “most important players” to the Bonnies’ success this year. Point guard Charlon Kloof said that he’d be one of the guys relied upon to pick up the scoring slack left by Andrew Nicholson.
So far, he’s been, and done, just that.
Through three games, the 6-5, 205-pound guard, now a fixture in the starting line-up, is averaging a team-best 16 points per game, tied for second in rebounding and has the fewest turnovers of anybody in the starting five.
He’s been incredibly efficient, shooting 63 percent (17-of-29) from the field, 57 percent (4-for-7) from 3-point range and 82 percent (9-of-11) from the line. And he’s come up big, going for 19 points in a win over Cornell and adding 19 more, on 8-for-11 shooting, to give Bona (2-1) a chance against Canisius.
Three games in, he’s been St. Bonaventure’s best player ... and off to a vastly different start than the one a year ago.
“When you’re more comfortable, you don’t have to think as much,” he said, “so you kind of see more opportunities where you can score or find other people as options to score. So now I’m not really thinking about the plays when he calls them out, I know them now.
“But a lot of that doesn’t really matter if you don’t work on your game individually. You can know everything on the court, but if you haven’t put the time in, it’s not going to pay off.”
Johnson lived at Bona for practically the entire summer, “getting up at 6 a.m., 5 a.m. doing cardio, getting up shots.” He wanted to make an even bigger impact this year, and so far, he’s seeing those results.
“He played good,” Schmidt said of Johnson’s performance against Canisius, in which he scored seven of the Bonnies’ first nine points. “He shot the ball well, he came out (strong).
“He needs to continue to improve, especially on the defensive end, but on the offensive end, I thought he played really, really well. He kept us in the game. He hit some big shots in the game, especially early on.”
It’s been a long road for Johnson, now a senior, to get to this point. He missed the final 19 games of his second year at Kilgore College (Texas) with a leg inury and then sat out the entire 2010-11 season to be at home with family. After being away from basketball for nearly a year-and-a-half, he struggled to prove his worth at the beginning of last season.
But he’s worked hard to get past that, and he’s happy to now be a key piece and a trusted veteran for the 2012-13 Bonnies.
“It means a lot to have (coach Schmidt’s) trust like that, seeing how last year I didn’t have it as a new guy. The transition I’ve made within the year is definitely a big thing.”
“It’s an opportunity. I don’t look at it as pressure. Pressure is different things. Basketball is something I do for a release from all that. I’m just happy and blessed to be able to play.”
(J.P. Butler, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at email@example.com)