LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - There's no question that the loss of freshman guard David Johnson and uncertainty about the timetable for his return is a blow for Louisville's basketball team since the former Louisville Trinity star was one of the newcomers capable of making an immediate impact in the 2019-20 season.
But the Cardinals appear to have enough depth to survive Johnson's absence, and are certainly in much better shape than they would have been last season had they lost a contributor.
Think about the problems the Cards might have encountered last season if Christen Cunningham, Darius Perry and almost anybody in the normal rotation had gone down for any substantial period of time.
U of L announced Thursday that the 6-foot-5 Johnson is expected to be out from four to six months after damaging his (non-shooting) left shoulder in practice on Monday, an injury that will require surgery. So at least he will miss much of the Cards' non-conference season and at worst some of their ACC games in January in addition to their league opener at Miami on Nov. 5.
The bigger question is how effective Johnson can be after missing most of the summer workouts, preseason practices and a minimum of 8-10 games, plus two exhibitions.
Johnson, a big, physical backcourt presence for Trinity, averaged 16.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and four assists as a senior. He was expected to be a valuable backup for UofL in his rookie season.
However, with seven upperclassmen returning, one of the top recruiting classes in the country and an experienced graduate transfer, Johnson's loss shouldn't dampen the Cards' optimism for the upcoming season or lower expectations of their being an ACC championship contender and possibly a national title threat.
Although Johnson was versatile enough to play either point guard or off guard, UofL coach Chris Mack has enough options with veterans Perry, Ryan McMahon, grad transfer Fresh Kimble from St. Joseph's and freshmen Josh Nickelberry and Samuel Williamson to be able to avoid any serious problems.
The player who is probably most likely to benefit from Johnson's absence in terms of increased minutes is 6-4 combo guard Nickelberry. The Fayetteville, N.C./Nortwood Academy product missed time this offseason with a broken hand, but has been impressive since returning to practice after rehab. Mack says Nickelberry is back to 100 percent.
Williamson (6-7), a McDonald's All-American, is primarily a small forward but also has the capability to provide relief at the off guard spot.
Kimble (6-0) will contend for the starting point guard spot, but he was injury-prone at St. Joe, where he missed games in each of his last three seasons. He played just 30 minutes as a junior before reinjuring the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and sitting out the rest of the season.
After struggling most of last season to be consistent and adapt to Mack's demands and discipline, Perry finished strong, and the coach has high hopes for him picking up where he left off in March.
"I'm hopeful he takes this offseason to do what he did in the last month of the season," Mack said. "Be an everyday guy, compete at a high level, be our best on ball defender, cut his turnovers way down, play with a higher IQ and shoot the ball like he's more than capable of doing. And I'm going to coach him just as hard as I did when he didn't like being coached hard. If he takes to it, I think he'll have a much better experience as a junior."
Finally, as a redshirt senior, McMahon is the most experienced of the bunch and will probably fill a similar role as last season when he was a reliable sub valued for his long-range shooting, ballhandling and leadership. He averaged 19.2 minutes off the bench.
So Louisville has plenty of weapons to make up for the unavailability of Johnson, and in the meantime will benefit from the additional playing experience by Kimball, Nickelberry and Williamson.
Mack spoke to youth basketball players at the L.E.E. Way Foundation Camp at the Chestnut Street YMCA and expanded on his comments that were included in an earlier release by UofL. The camp was conducted by former Card Damion Lee, currently a member of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
“I feel sad for Dave,” Mack said. “Our team is going to be fine. You know we’re a much deeper team than we were a year ago, but I know the excitement level that he had to start off the season and do it in his hometown. For that to sort of be interrupted and pushed back, is disappointing for him. He’ll get better. He’ll do exactly what he needs to do to get back on the floor and we’ll be better once he gets back.”
Mack said the recovery time will determine whether or not Johnson is able to work his way into the rotation when he returns.
"It’s a wide-ranging timeline and it really depends on how quickly he heals,” Mack said. “We won’t put him in harms way and when he’s able to return then we’ll be a deeper team with him. David is a quick learner. He really picks up on things. He was obviously really well coached at Trinity. He’ll do what he needs to do while he’s out, pay attention, so that his transition is seamless. The great thing is it’s his non-shooting shoulder, which will help him get back even quicker.”