BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green can admit it with a sheepish grin now, days away from the start of his senior season with the Hokies. When former Coach Seth Greenberg was fired suddenly last April, he played both sides.
On the one hand, Green was texting and calling his teammates, telling them to wait it out, at least until a new head coach was hired. At the same time, he weighed his options with family and a close group of advisers who even had contact with schools from the Big Ten and Big East.
But within minutes of hearing that Virginia Tech had hired James Johnson to replace Greenberg, Green took to Twitter and announced he would be returning to Blacksburg.
“I was gonna leave. That was my first decision,” Green said earlier this month. “But this man, when I was 15, nobody really recruited me and he believed in me and got me where I am today.”
“Coming back, my decision was to get him started and help him along the way and get this program on its feet the right way.”
There are few reminders of the Greenberg regime left at Virginia Tech’s practice facility these days. His motivational quotes have been scrubbed off the walls, his image nowhere to be found and his name uttered only when necessary. There is a new energy to the building, even though Greenberg’s former top assistant leads the program now and much of the Hokies’ nucleus returns from the team that went 16-17 a year ago.
But whether Johnson has a successful first year, and overcomes having just eight scholarship players on his inaugural roster, will largely depend on his relationship with Green, a player inextricably linked to him during his sudden rise up college basketball’s coaching ladder.
These days, Green and Johnson talk about each other like an old married couple. Green laughs every time he recounts how skeptical he was during his first phone call with Johnson, when “I just heard this country voice. I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
But Johnson was always Green’s favorite, and when he jumped from Penn State to George Mason to Virginia Tech as an assistant in a matter of two years during Green’s recruiting process, Johnson’s new school instantly became Green’s top choice.
Johnson still remembers the specific details of the first time he saw Green, a workout heading into Green’s junior year of high school in 2007, when Johnson went to Winchester and was first sold on a player who would go on to earn All-Met honors the next two years, first at Millbrook High and then at Paul VI Catholic.
“I try not to worry about rankings,” Johnson said. “I try to look at what a player is capable of doing out there on the floor. Does he make the right decisions? Does he put the ball in the hole? How does he handle, pass, shoot? Does he understand the game and those are the things that I saw in him from an early age. We were fortunate that we identified him early when we were able to get a commitment from him before everybody else saw those things.”
Green has steadily improved each season, adding a reliable jump shot after shooting 29.3 percent as an in-over-his-head freshman in 2009-10. His hard work culminated with a second-team all-ACC selection last season, when he averaged 15.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game
But Johnson is now counting his 6-foot-3 leader more than ever. The Hokies return four of their top seven scorers from last season, but they’ll only go as far as Green takes them with Johnson instituting a fast-paced, up-tempo philosophy despite the program’s limited numbers. Both player and coach would like to see Green become a more efficient distributor while also shouldering even more of the scoring load.
Expectations are low – Virginia Tech was picked to finish in 10th place by the ACC’s coaches – and Green is the team’s lone senior. But he sees an even bigger role than before as an avenue to fulfill his NBA dreams.
In June, Green was invited to attend Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., learning the finer points of running the pick-and-roll and matching wits with some of college basketball’s best returning guards.
He looks back on the experience now as more proof that he is one of the country’s top point guards this year, but it’s also a reminder of the coach who first saw that potential in him. He doesn’t want to let him down.
“I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make sure this man has a great year,” Green said of Johnson. “I feel obligated.”