Avery Johnson recalls recruiting the base of Alabama’s NCAA tourney team

The 2021 SEC Player of the Year. The 2021 Big 12 Player of the Year.

One basketball head coach signed them both out of high school.

Two NBA lottery picks at point guard, both with promising futures as professionals. The same coach signed them, too.

The core group of starters and reserves that helped lead Alabama basketball to the SEC championship, highly-recruited players like Herbert Jones, John Petty Jr. and Alex Reese, but also Jaden Shackelford and Juwan Gary. That’s right, the same head coach signed them.

And while every program can recount its list of near-misses, the same coach had 2021 All-Americans Drew Timme (Gonzaga) and Luka Garza (Iowa) in Tuscaloosa for campus visits, and both showed legitimate interest.

While Avery Johnson had his ups and downs in his Alabama tenure, there is no way to argue that his player evaluation over his four years was remarkable. Roster management and early exits would have taken a toll in a crowded house with a limited number of basketballs, of course, but it would have been hypothetically possible for Alabama’s perimeter roster this season to have been Colin Sexton, Kira Lewis Jr., Jared Butler, Jones and Petty.

Even in that roster’s current configuration, it’s clear that Johnson recognized talent and did not leave the cupboard bare when he departed from Alabama after the 2019 season, However, he is quick to deflect the credit for the Crimson Tide’s 2021 success directly to Nate Oats and staff.

“First of all, give the current staff all the credit for the magnificent job they have done,” Johnson said on a radio interview with another former Alabama coach, Wimp Sanderson, and Barry Sanderson on their Tide 100.9-FM morning radio show. “They play faster than we did, they spread the floor, they play great defense. They have recruited well, My good friend Bill Battle (who hired Johnson to replace Anthony Grant in 2015), this is what he dreamed of.”

Johnson said his focus was largely on instate talent when he took over at Alabama, leading to the signing of Jones, Petty and Alex Reese.

”Those are all special players. I’m totally shocked that Herb Jones is not a top-20 pick in the draft projections,” Johnson said. “I know all those NBA people, too. But those things can change fast. They’re pretty fluid. Sure, he could improve his outside shot but there is nothing else he can’t do. Ben Simmons has no outside shot and he just signed for $100 million.”

Johnson also noted that he tried to expand the Alabama recruiting base.

”I think a big key was when we went more national in our recruiting,” he said. “Juwan Gary was headed on a straight line for South Carolina and we got him, a guy who is tough, who rebounds. Jaden Shackelford, I’ll never forget when he committed to us. He didn’t have any big offers. He committed to us in his driveway and his mom was so excited that she started crying.”

Then there was Butler, who was on campus at Alabama for two months before transferring to Baylor following what has been referred to by UA as “a medical situation.”

”I can’t go deep into that,” Johnson said. “I’ll just say he was from my area, around New Orleans. We kept up with him there in Reserve (where Butler played in high school). I thought he had a shot like, well, I won’t say like Steph Curry, but a great shot. He was a competitor. I think the only offers he had in the early period was from us and Southeastern (Louisiana). He’s just a great player.”

On a personal level, Johnson said he “pivoted away from basketball about 18 months ago” to enter the business world.

“I’m in private equity, the CEO of my own firm, a $100 million fund,” he said. “We buy government buildings in various cities and have been very successful.

”I did keep doing a little television work and I will be working some of the (NCAA) games this weekend, two of the First Four games and then two more (Purdue-North Texas and Oklahoma-Missouri) at Lucas Oil Stadium on the weekend. So I’m glad to still be involved in the tournament. I played in it (with Southern University in 1987 and 1988), coached in it (with Alabama in 2018) and now called it.”