The entire Theodore Roosevelt boys’ basketball team was sent to one of the baselines at the end of a practice earlier this week, huffing and puffing after a grueling 21 / 2-hour workout. Coach Rob Nickens called junior point guard Johnnie Shuler to the free throw line where the task was simple. Shuler had to knock down both shots, and if he missed, his exhausted team would have to run sprints.
In his first full year at Roosevelt, these are the moments that Shuler has grown to love. After transferring from DeMathain January 2012, he hoped to drop into the Rough Riders’ lineup midseason. But on one of his first days at the school, Nickens called the 5-foot-11 guard into his office and told him that he would not be playing for Roosevelt for another year. Shuler would also have to wait his turn to become the team’s point guard.
“I never knew that I had to sit out,” Shuler said. “I was disappointed at first. But then I just took it took it as . . . to work harder, and just get ready for next year.”
Roosevelt has won 23 games — the latest coming in Thursday’s 71-45 DCIAA quarterfinal win over Spingarn — and much of that success is linked to Shuler’s arrival as one of the city’s best players. The Rough Riders host Ballou in a Saturday semifinal, eager to earn a rematch with 2012 champion Coolidge — the team that dealt the Rough Riders their first loss on Feb. 12 — and cement a berth in the new DCSAA tournament. Roosevelt last played for a city championship in 2011, losing to DeMatha, 52-50 in the Abe Pollin City Title Game.
Shuler was just a skinny freshman on that 2010-11 DeMatha team, which was crowded with college prospects — including guards Kameron Taylor, Marcellous Bell and James Robinson. But he still started at times that season, and he “ended up finishing a lot of games,” according to DeMatha Coach Mike Jones.
During his 2011-12 sophomore year, financial constraints and limited playing time began to weigh on Shuler and his family, said Tony Langley, Shuler’s former coach and longtime mentor. Langley, 52, who has been a guardian-like figure for Shuler since he coached an 8-year-old Shuler on the DC Warriors AAU team, said he could sense Shuler was unhappy that second year in Hyattsville.
“I started to see his grades slipping. That, coupled with the finances, it was time to make a move,” Langley said. “It was very difficult. You don’t leave school in the middle of the year. It was a very stressful time, no doubt about it. . . . Ultimately, it was his mother’s and [my] decision.”
A player transferring from the WCAC to the DCIAA isn’t unusual, according to Jones. But a prospect the caliber of Shuler leaving one the top high school conferences in the nation doesn’t happen often. Seton Hall, Nebraska and Miami have all expressed interest in the pass-first point guard who, despite his thin and wiry frame, can captivate a crowd with a cross-over dribble or an NBA range three-pointer in equal measure.
While Shuler found his bearings in his new environment last spring, he also prepared to prove to Nickens and his teammates that he deserved the starting point guard job. It hasn’t been easy for Shuler, who is quiet and reserved.
As Theodore Roosevelt made its usual late-season push last winter, the only games Shuler participated in were scrimmages at practice. (“I took every practice as a game,” Shuler said.) In the spring and summer, he shot 500 jumpers a day and worked on his conditioning. During the days, in Nickens’s office, he watched and rewatched the 2004 documentary, “Through the Fire,” which chronicles point guard Sebastian Telfair through his senior season at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
“That was my way of trying to get him to understand the importance of being a point guard,” Nickens said. “We watched that movie probably 150, 200 times. You know, we used to watch it every day.”
The project is ongoing for Shuler, but he has found his voice at key moments this season. During a game in January against West Charlotte (N.C.), Shuler helped break up a scuffle between the two teams, and at one point got into the faces of several teammates, pointing to his temple with his finger, telling them to be smarter. In other games, such as a Feb. 2 win over Milford Mill, he has simply taken over and let his shooting do the talking. Shuler finished with 36 points in the 77-69 win, perhaps his best game to date.
“He’s really a leader,” said Roosevelt reserve Jibreel Faulkner. “It fits his character on the court.”
“I wasn’t like sure, sure, sure about the choice at first,” Shuler said of his decision to leave DeMatha for Roosevelt. “And then it turned into something good.”
Shuler’s actions spoke louder than words at the practice earlier this week, too, when he stepped to the line with his teammates depending on their point guard to save them from stomach-churning sprints. Some of Shuler’s teammates have tattoos, others have colorful shoes — but nothing about Shuler stands out until he starts playing. Over light blue shorts, he wore a white tee with white socks and white shoes, and he calmly drained both foul shots.