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Garrett Johnson and George Washington: A perfect match for a diamond in the rough

(Photo courtesy of @GW_MBB)

FOGGY BOTTOM – “I really didn’t know if anyone would give me an opportunity.”

Just six months ago, it was not a guarantee that Garrett Johnson would be offered a scholarship to play Division 1 basketball.

Johnson’s story begins two-and-a-half years ago. He was a senior at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Despite losing his senior basketball season because of COVID, Johnson still had a decorated high school career, scoring over 1000 points and earning all sorts of conference and state-wide accolades. Johnson, a versatile, 6-8 wing who was a three-star recruit, was set to join the Princeton Tigers after receiving 21 Division 1 offers.

Everything changed on March 1, 2021. 

Johnson had been dealing with hip soreness for a few months, and on that day, his doctor broke the news to him that he had a rare benign tumor in his left hip. 

This forced Johnson to redshirt his freshman season at Princeton. While his teammates were practicing and competing, he was undergoing all sorts of treatments to try and shrink the tumor. 

Johnson eventually made the decision to leave Princeton and focus on his recovery. Finally, this past March, after two years, four surgeries and nine rounds of chemotherapy, the tumor had shrunk enough to a point where doctors gave Johnson the go-ahead to resume playing competitive basketball. 

Instead of returning to Princeton, who had just completed a Cinderella-run to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament, Johnson elected to enter the transfer portal.

“Going through what I went through at Princeton, it was tough to go back there,” Johnson said.

Johnson wasn’t exactly sure what options were out there for him. 

“I didn’t know who was going to want me after two-and-a-half years of not playing,” Johnson said. 

He hadn’t played competitive, five-on-five basketball since February of 2020. He was just barely feeling like himself again after a grueling battle against the tumor. 

Heading into this past offseason, George Washington knew they had to make a lot of moves. With three players graduating and five transferring out, GW had seven available scholarships and the opportunity for newcomers to earn significant playing time right away. 

This would also be head coach Chris Caputo’s first opportunity to begin building out a roster of his own players after he was only able to bring in two transfers last offseason. 

Two members of GW’s coaching staff were in Caputo’s ear about Johnson just as the transfer portal opened. 

Director of recruiting Matt Colpoys had coached Johnson’s brother, Braeden, at Johns Hopkins, and had a close relationship with the family. 

“I remember talking to his brother and his parents, Colpoys said. “His parents would come to our games and I would ask, ‘how’s Garrett doing?’ when Garrett was at Princeton undergoing his surgeries.”

Former GW assistant coach Brendan Straughn, who is now an assistant coach at Syracuse, was familiar with Johnson through the Team Takeover AAU program. Johnson played his AAU ball for Team Takeover, where Straughn held various roles at from 2013-2018.

Caputo trusted Colpoys and Straughn, and went to watch Johnson workout. 

“They believed,” Caputo said.

On Johnson’s end, he just wanted a chance. In March, he began reaching out to programs through some of his former coaches.

Things looked a bit different this time around for Johnson compared to when he was getting recruited out of high school. Instead of 21 offers, he only received serious interest from three schools: GW, William and Mary, and Vermont. 

When GW expressed interest, Johnson made sure to make the most of the opportunity. He was at the Smith Center working out in front of the staff immediately after one of his final rounds of chemotherapy. 

“You’ve heard stories about guys with some health issues,” Caputo said. “The good news is, with the way the rules are, we were able to watch him live. Even in the workouts, you could see his shooting ability, his athleticism, balance, you knew the guy was going to wind up being a good player.” 

Looking back at those initial workouts, Johnson didn’t feel any pressure even though his options were limited. 

“I worked so much in the time that I was away from the game,” Johnson said. “It was just another basketball workout.”

Despite not being able to play competitive basketball, Johnson was constantly in the gym with his trainers doing whatever he could to stay in shape while undergoing the various surgeries and chemotherapy. 

Things began to move quickly after that first visit. Johnson worked out with GW one more time, and committed in early April. 

It was a perfect situation.

“Going to a coaching staff that believed in me and being able to play at home in front of my family and friends was definitely a big part of it,” Johnson said. 

The coaching staff was obviously intrigued about Johnson’s potential, but they were still dealing with someone who hadn’t played competitive basketball in three years and had serious questions about his health. There were no guarantees that the tools Johnson showcased during his workouts would immediately translate to competitive five-on-five play or that he would be able to shake off the rust in time for the start of the season, or that he would even be able to stay on the court..

“You’re betting on some unknowns,” Colpoys said. “But at the end of the day we felt very comfortable.” 

Colpoys expanded on how confident the GW coaching staff was in giving Johnson an opportunity despite their initial trepidations. 

“Garrett has probably overcome more adversity than any other freshman in the country,” Colpoys said. “In college basketball, you’re going to deal with adversity… So your response to adversity is so important. At the end of the day, you bet on people.” 

Once Johnson got on campus and began practicing with the rest of the team, it quickly became clear how special he was. Caputo and the rest of the GW staff had found a diamond in the rough and made the absolute correct decision offering Johnson a scholarship. 

“It was pretty apparent as we got him going that he could be a really good player,” Caputo said.

After impressing behind-the-scenes in practices, Johnson gained national attention from outlets like ESPN, The Field of 68, and USA Today by scoring 21 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and shooting 5-7 from three in his collegiate debut in GW’s season-opening 89-44 win over Stonehill. 

In the next three games, Johnson showed that his debut was not a fluke. After leading GW to an undefeated 4-0 start, he has a team high 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from three. He was named Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Week each of the first two weeks of the season and is looking like an early favorite to win Rookie of the Year. 

The coaching staff was confident that Johnson was going to be able to contribute in some capacity right away, but no one could have known just how quickly he would become such an integral part of the team.

“No, I’d be lying if I did,” Colpoys said. “I remember talking before the first game and it was just like, ‘it’s really cool that you’re able to play.’”

From being one of just three schools to offer him a scholarship, to inserting him in the starting lineup to begin the season, to becoming a focal point in GW’s offense, GW has consistently put their faith in Johnson for the past six months and it’s worked out every time.

“I really didn’t know if anyone would give me an opportunity like that from what I went through and how much time I lost away from the game,” Johnson said. “It really means the world, being able to go play for them now with the confidence they’ve instilled in me. It’s amazing.”