After nearly 20 years on the sidelines, more time with family was needed.
When asked about his return to coaching this season, Johnson said he felt “recharged and invigorated,” but it took the first half of the season for the Wolfpack (14-5, 8-1 Region 6A) to rekindle some of that same energy and passion.
Before the New Year, Whitefield was winning games regularly — its only loss prior to the winter break was a 76-63 setback to Region 6A rival North Cobb Christian — but Johnson still sensed that something wasn’t quite right with the team’s performances during the early stretch.
And he wasn’t afraid to verbally express it.
“I didn’t see a whole lot of good, even when we were winning and everybody thought that we were pretty good,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see a real commitment to defending the half-court set. Ultimately, that’s our bread-and-butter. In the end, you have to defend the half-court set and execute offensively in the half-court set.”
Johnson also discussed the lack of rebounding and running the ball in transition, something senior guard Jesse Byrd, who will play next year at Division II North Georgia, agrees with.
“We were winning but we weren’t playing Whitefield style of basketball,” he said, “and we weren’t reflecting the tradition of the school.”
Whitefield’s flaws finally surfaced during the winter break, when the Wolfpack lost four straight games at showcase events in Coral Springs, Fla., and Roebuck, S.C.
After spending hours going back to the drawing board, Johnson concluded that Whitefield would need to change its identity if it wanted the chance to win its second state title in a three-year span.
Since then, the Wolfpack have gone on a seven-game winning streak, capped by victories over fellow Class A powers St. Francis and North Cobb Christian.
Johnson said having the players watch tape of past games helped correct their mistakes. The team also upped the ante on physical conditioning to avoid fatigue.
“I would say that the team would get into offense very slow,” said senior forward Eric Lockett, a George Mason commitment who averages 17.4 points a game. “We were not pitching the ball and running it like we were supposed to. That was the main thing.”
Added Johnson: “I wanted to show the boys how they really look on film. It’s one thing when the coaches are seeing it, but it’s another thing for the players to actually see it.”
Better rebounding and execution on the full-court defense have been among the key differences. During its seven-game winning streak, Whitefield has held its opposition to 46.8 points a game. Before the streak, they were giving up 60.
In January, the Wolfpack have held teams to 50 points or less in six of their seven wins. St. Francis the lone team to roll up the points during that stretch, but the Wolfpack still prevailed 71-63.
“I always said a good defensive team is a team that has facial expressions when they get scored on,” Johnson said. “In other words, you can see that they dislike being scored on. I can truly say that our guys get upset with themselves when they have defensive breakdowns. Prior to that, we treated it like a grain of salt.”
Whitefield’s statement game came last Friday, when it avenged its only region loss, to North Cobb Christian. It beat the Eagles 64-43 and never trailed.
Lockett had 26 points — scoring 10 of Whitefield’s first 12 points — and added 13 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in that game.
The Wolfpack also got off to a quick start in their win over St. Francis last Tuesday, scoring the game’s first nine points.
Lockett is currently averaging 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals. Senior Berto Dryden, the team’s best player from long distance, is shooting 57 percent on his 3-point attempts (28-of-49) and averaging 10.2 points a contest.
Junior forward Courtney Alexander Jr. is averaging 7.9 rebounds. An offseason transfer from Dominion Christian, Alexander is the son of former college star and NBA player Courtney Alexander.
Byrd has knocked down key shots during Whitefield’s winning streak, and Johnson said junior Norman Harris is the most improved player over the last five games, getting the shots and rebounds needed to help the Wolfpack hold on to leads.