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June 25, 2013

Johnson takes leader's role

It is a strange situation to be a transferring player who is expected to be a leader. It's further strange to ask a player to be a leader when he won't be playing for the majority of the non-conference season.

Ty Johnson doesn't mind. He's come into this type of situation before and responded. What's one more time?

"Everywhere I've been, I was always expected to be the leader, because I was the point guard of the team," Johnson said last week after his first game of the S.C. Pro Am. "Myself, being new to the team, and playing for Frank Martin, I'm excited to take on the role of a leader. I'm excited to get on the court and change this program and get this team multiple victories."

Johnson transferred from Villanova in December and spent the last half of the 2012-13 season with South Carolina, although he couldn't play. Still, he was able to learn Martin's system in practice and begin the process of getting to know the games of his future teammates, plus rekindle a friendship with former high-school teammate Michael Carrera.

The Gamecocks' roster was seven less than what it started the season with as the end-of-season decisions were finalized, and Martin reloaded with seven freshmen for 2013-14. Johnson, who has yet to play a game with the Gamecocks, was suddenly thrust into the role of one of the team's leaders - he had played a year of high-level college basketball, he was classified as a junior, he had been around. Even though he can't play until Dec. 17 (the day after the last exam of the fall semester is issued), Johnson had to join with fellow senior Brenton Williams to teach the new class how to operate within Martin's framework.

The team has veterans returning, but they're sophomores. Others who have been around are Carlton Geathers, who didn't play last year due to a fractured kneecap and is still trying to get back on the court, and Bruce Ellington, like Johnson a player who will be out for much of the non-conference season while playing football. Williams and Johnson were the only two upperclassmen who could be on the floor every day with the freshmen, and with workouts being unsupervised, they had to be the ones to ensure that every day was spent trying to get better.

Johnson took the role and has no intention of giving it up. He's used to it.

"I came from a public school, went to Montrose, I was the newest guy, I was a senior, coach (Stu) Vetter told me, 'We need leadership,'" Johnson said. "I came in there, took on a role, because I wanted to get better."

Johnson transferred from Plainfield (N.J.) High School to Montrose Christian (Md.) School for his senior year, and helped lead the Mustangs to the ESPN Rise 2011 national championship, beating powerful Oak Hill in the championship game. After that, it was off to Villanova, where he started nine of 32 games and took on another leadership role, stepping into a crucial role when Maalik Wayns suffered a knee injury.

Johnson decided to get a fresh start, though, transferring from Villanova in December of his sophomore year. While he announced before the season officially began that he would transfer, he also played in an exhibition game. Those nine minutes have come back to haunt.

Thought to have the final half of the 2013-14 season and then two more full seasons at USC, Johnson has been re-classified as having the final half of the 2013-14 season and one more season. The nine minutes of the exhibition, in the eyes of the NCAA, constitutes a full season of eligibility since he technically began the season and then transferred. While Johnson and USC are processing an appeal to the NCAA to try and re-claim the lost year, as it stands now, he only has one-and-a-half seasons to play for the Gamecocks.

The NCAA has never been known for swiftly coming to a conclusion on any matter, but Johnson has a while before he finds out what will happen. Whatever time he has will be spent trying to make the Gamecocks better, on and off the floor.

"The only thing I can do is just go through the process," he said. "Whether it's this year or next year, whenever I'm still here, I'll maybe get a year back. But if not, I'm just going to continue to get better.

"I felt like this was home for me. Me and coach Martin have a great relationship. Playing with Michael in high school, he brings energy and toughness to your team, the kind of guy you want as a teammate. For me to be back and playing with him next year, he's very excited because he has a leader on the court, someone he looks up to. In high school, we won a national championship together. I'm just happy to be here at USC, playing for the program and playing for my teammates and coaches."

Johnson can play either guard spot, but he should take over the point once he's eligible to play. The Gamecocks have a decision to make in the meantime - somebody has to take the role, and the answer will come from a trio of freshmen. Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice or Jaylen Shaw will have to handle the role until Ellington and Johnson get on the floor.

The Pro Am and the summer workouts are helping develop those roles. Thornwell and Shaw are also competing (Notice is playing for one of the Canadian national teams this summer) and Johnson can offer them guidance about the point. Johnson and Carrera seamlessly blended back into the chemistry that they had at Montrose, and the two are trying to be examples to the freshmen in everything about USC.

The season promises to be a constant growing process. It can't be much else with so much young, unproven (in college) talent and with two key pieces out for a chunk of the non-conference season. Johnson is ready for the ride, and his role in it.

"I feel 100 percent healthy, I'm in shape. I'm just trying to keep my motor going," he said. "Workouts have been going great. The young guys have been listening to coach Martin and the coaching staff. They've been on time for everything, they've been competing in practice and pickup games. This summer is for us to get better. There's no days off for us.

"These games in the Pro Am, like I told my teammates, 'Take everything, every second, like it's your last. You just never know when your time might be up.'"

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