When Virginia Tech introduced James Johnson as its new basketball coach last week, point guard Erick Green assured assembled media that Johnson’s appointment would prevent any player defections.
As a rising senior, All-ACC talent and team leader, Green has often served as the Hokies’ spokesman. But he wasn’t the source I most wanted to hear.
For months I’d known, confidentially, that freshman Dorian Finney-Smith from Portsmouth’s Norcom High was unhappy and contemplating a transfer. More important, his mother, Desiree Finney, was unhappy with how her son was being coached.
That restlessness became public Tuesday when sources revealed, and Tech officials later confirmed, Finney-Smith’s intent to transfer.
Johnson learned of the decision last weekend when he and associate athletic director Tom Gabbard met on campus with Desiree Finney. Dorian, who had spoken earlier in the week with Johnson, was not in the room.
As any college coach will attest, a cranky parent/guardian/family member often can affect or disrupt a team faster than any player.
Not to question parents’ advocacy for their children — it’s a sacred calling. But at what stage does advocacy become meddling?
The point here is that Johnson shoulders no blame for the loss of Finney-Smith, a promising forward who made the ACC’s All-Freshman team after averaging 6.3 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds.
Yes, athletic director Jim Weaver said player retention was among the reasons he chose Johnson, a Hokies assistant coach the past five seasons, to replace the fired Seth Greenberg. But this was beyond Johnson’s control.
Boo Williams, who coached Finney-Smith for several years on Nike’s spring and summer circuit, believes neither Greenberg nor assistant coach John Richardson could have prevented the transfer.
Greenberg and Richardson tag-teamed Tech’s recruitment of Finney-Smith, Greenberg working the big picture, Richardson the Hampton Roads angle. Richardson had coached Finney-Smith’s brother, Ben Finney, as an Old Dominion assistant and knows the family well.
Richardson left Tech and returned to ODU days before Greenberg’s dismissal, but even had he remained in Blacksburg, Finney-Smith likely would be gone.
Conspiracy theorists immediately had Finney-Smith in a Monarchs uniform and reunited with Richardson. But Williams and Virginia Tech officials told me, and Desiree Finney told the Virginian-Pilot, that Finney-Smith is not interested in ODU.
The coach who lands the 6-foot-8 Finney-Smith -- Florida was his other finalist -- will inherit a skilled passer and ball-handler who struggled mightily with his shot last season. During one hard-to-watch stretch, Finney-Smith missed 25 consecutive attempts from the field, dooming him to 33-percent accuracy for the season.
Throughout, Greenberg’s praise of the young man was effusive, if not over the top, perhaps a hint that he was trying to appease player and/or parent. Greenberg went so far as change Finney-Smith’s shooting mechanics during the season, a process that required hours of one-on-one instruction after practice.
Question Greenberg’s timing but not his intent. He worked tirelessly on Finney-Smith’s behalf.
Desiree Finney told Johnson her son, a slender 192 pounds, too often played out of position at power forward. But those occasions were few. Besides, coaches are charged with doing what’s best for the team, not the individual.
Finney-Smith’s departure leaves Tech with nine scholarship players for next season, seven returnees and incoming freshmen Marshall Wood and Montrezl Harrell, both forwards. But Harrell, the U.S. team’s MVP in the Capital Classic all-star game (highlights here), has been pondering his options since Greenberg’s exit.
Losing Finney-Smith and Harrell, the centerpieces of consecutive recruiting classes, would be more than a glancing blow to a program in transition and reeling from a 4-12 ACC record. But Johnson should not be judged short-term.
During his first week-plus on the job, he’s not only re-recruited current players but also worked to assemble what could be an intriguing, diverse staff.
Tech has not officially announced their hirings, but Johnson appears focused on College of Charleston assistant Mark Byington, Navy associate head coach Kurt Kanaskie and Illinois basketball administrator Ramon Williams.
Byington and Williams hail from southwestern Virginia and were quality players at UNC Wilmington and VMI, respectively. Kanaskie has 18 years of head-coaching experience, 11 in Division II, seven at Drake, and played against Boo Williams in Philadelphia’s storied Big Five, Kanaskie at LaSalle, Williams at Saint Joseph’s.
“Great guy, pretty good player, too,” Williams said of Kanaskie, a 1980 LaSalle grad.
If Johnson can finalize that group, they should bring more to Virginia Tech basketball than an unhappy small forward.
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