What could’ve been?
I spent about 15 minutes lying on my bed listening to “Dior” by Pop Smoke (RIP) and wondering just that. Dior Johnson, decked out in Orange and custom Nikes, with 30,000-plus fans screaming his name at the Dome, sinking bucket after bucket down the stretch against Duke or Georgetown. It was too good to be true.
Dior is gone. Well, re-opening his recruiting, but that means he’s done with SU. Syracuse and the five-star recruit parted ways on Tuesday. It was reportedly a “mutual separation,” but nothing is mutual when a special player decides to go elsewhere.
There were rumblings. Too many. For starters it was extremely strange to see a high schooler, especially one with such immense talent and such a large following, commit after his sophomore year of high school. That barely happens in the basketball world. Top-rated prospects usually wait until their junior or senior years to announce their decisions.
However, Dior’s case was unique. He committed as a sophomore that had just finished his fourth year of varsity basketball at his third different school (Saugerties, IMG Academy, Mayfair). A recurring theme was injuries causing departures. Johnson transferred from IMG back to Saugerties after breaking a bone in his foot. After his sophomore year, Johnson transferred from Mayfair (chances are because his superstar teammate Josh “Jaygup” Christopher graduated) to Oak Hill, subsequently left because of stress fractures, and ended up back in California, where he’s now enrolled at Corona Centennial High.
No matter the reason for Johnson’s nomadic life, it worried SU fans. Transferring is not uncommon for high school players these days, but five (counting Findlay Prep, where Johnson was planning on playing before the academy closed in 2019) of them? The fact that Johnson couldn’t find a home was concerning.
Now, for Johnson, the basketball side of transferring was as easy as putting on a different jersey. But one would assume that the transfers led to academic issues.
While nobody knows exactly what these academic issues are, there are two main reasons why Dior would have problems. The first conclusion is that he might not be a great student. However, I doubt it, considering he’s such a hard worker on the court. There’s no way that work ethic doesn’t translate.
The more plausible reason is a lack of credits. Every high schooler, athlete or otherwise, needs a certain amount of class credits to graduate high school. Johnson’s credits could’ve failed to transfer from school to school since states have different educational requirements, and left him without enough credits to get a diploma. Part of his freshman year was wiped out when he returned to New York from IMG, and leaving Oak Hill eliminated part of a junior year. He might’ve been forced to take extra classes to attend college, and his academic profile might not have been up to SU’s standards. If this is true, there is a high probability Johnson won’t spend a second of time on any college campus.
The “people in his ear” quote was definitely concerning for the Orange coaching staff. It’s hard for coaches, regulated by the NCAA’s recruiting laws, to battle against “advisors” and people from professional organizations who can pop by anytime and explain the benefits of passing on college.
Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager for a second. Why take extra online classes, over the summer, when you can forget about school and focus on basketball? You can sign endorsements because you aren’t faced with archaic amateurism laws. You can work out with pros and the best trainers available year-round. You can still play AAU. The greatest part of it all? You collect a check of at least $100,000 when you turn 18 for joining the NBA’s G-League Prospect Pathway.
In July, the NBA finalized its first ever G-League Prospect Pathway roster, picking up Johnathan Kuminga. The similarities between Kuminga and Johnson are vague, but now they make a bit more sense. Just like Kuminga, Dior got antsy and rumors flew about reclassification. Maybe he was tired of high school ball, or maybe he wanted to enter the NBA as soon as possible. But an attempt to spurn college and show interest in the G-League would almost guarantee a contract for a top-20 player. Johnson has already proven he can dominate high school competition. Instead of risking another injury, or having to work extremely hard for college eligibility, he can just wait for his 18th birthday.
There’s an extremely high chance that Dior goes to the G-League (or overseas), especially if academic issues were the main reason he backed out of his SU pledge. Chances are most schools would bend over backwards for a player like Johnson, but it seems all too likely that he’s headed on the professional route.
The real question is, what happened on the Syracuse side of things? There are statements floating around on Twitter, but nothing concrete. Did lead recruiter Gerry McNamara not do enough? Were Dior’s academic struggles enough to discourage Boeheim to let him go? Why in the world was this announced as a “mutual agreement to part ways?”
The last quote comes from a Syracuse.com direct source. The phrasing is cute, but there is no possible way for coach Jim Boeheim and SU to make this look good. When a top-10 player backs out of a pledge, most of the other recruits who considered tagging along are immediately looking elsewhere. It’s also a bad case of deja vu for Boeheim, considering Darius Bazley did the exact same thing in 2018.
Syracuse is now left without a single prospect in the class of 2022, and only forward Benny Williams in the class of 2021. However, the Orange are still in the race for some top-100 talent, including Roddy Gayle, who is set to announce his college decision this Friday.
Regardless, no prospect on the SU shortlist can fulfill the shoes of Dior Johnson. Johnson even attending SU was a long shot in the first place, but ten months of commitment created a false sense of security. Dior most certainly will be great, no matter where he ends up, but it would’ve been amazing to see him in Orange. The question remains: What could’ve been?