PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Sports Now’s George Michalowski broke news that Pitt reinstated first-year guard Dior Johnson to practice this week on Wednesday.
Johnson, who is 18-years old, originally faced charges of one felony count of aggravated assault, one felony count of strangulation, one misdemeanor count of unlawful restraint, one misdemeanor count of simple assault and one misdemeanor count of false imprisonment.
The judge for the case dropped four charges, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, witness intimidation and aggravated assault, but held one charge of simple assault (misdemeanor) and one charge of strangulation (felony) on Oct. 20.
Johnson plead guilty to those two charges on Dec. 9, with the judge lessening the strangulation charge to a misdemeanor ordering Johnson to serve a year of probation.
Panthers head coach Jeff Capel and players in graduate guard Jamarius Burton plus junior forward Blake Hinson spoke to the media at a press conference on Wednesday about reinstating Johnson and what his role is going forward.
Capel confirmed the news that Johnson is back with the team and practicing. He and Athletic Director Heather Lyke spoke with each other and to Johnson. He also said that he spoke with players on the team, their thoughts on everything and made the decision to bring him back.
Capel said that Johnson will redshirt this year and spend time practicing and working on his game the rest of the season. He said that it wasn’t his decision, but that he and Johnson talked about it and agreed it would be the best decision.
“He hasn’t played basketball since October 7th,” Capel said. “It’s very hard when you haven’t played in three months to come back and to be able to play. There’s a process, there’s a ramp-up. Especially when you get to ACC play it gets very hard. You risk injury when you haven’t competed.”
There are two processes according to Capel that he had to go through for this decision: one with the university and one that he and Lyke underwent to speak with Johnson about his future. He kept in contact with Johnson throughout the past two months of his suspension, but nothing dealing with the court case.
Capel and Lyke spoke with Johnson on Monday, Dec. 19, the day before the Syracuse game. They had several conversations about the role he would serve going forward, redshirting and what was best for him.
“Obviously I’m always thinking about our program, but you’ve got a young guy that we’re trying to teach,” Capel said on Johnson. “I still think we’re in the business of teaching, at least that’s why I got into this thing and helping young people and I feel like he’s a kid that we can help and we’re going to try and help him.”
Capel said that Johnson has grown over the past few months and will continue to learn more about himself over the rest of the season and throughout college. He also noted that his teammates play a large role in bringing him back into the sport, but also helping him develop as a person outside of practice too.
“…how I know we can help him, is we have some older guys teaching him how to be a really good teammate,” Capel said. “Teaching him how to work. Teaching him the discipline that it takes to be a good player. Teaching him how to be in college, to be around something and to be part of something.”
Capel said that when he played in college at Duke in the mid 1990s, he had a great support system to help him through his time. This included coaches, teammates including the older guys and former players the helped guide him and prepare him for what he would face on the court and off the court.
He wants, with him from his staff and players, to provide that help for Johnson. Capel acknowledged that Johnson faced scrutiny prior to joining Pitt, even though scouts rated him as a five-star recruit, for transferring so often in high school.
“He’s not a bad kid at all, but learning to be a part of something, learning how to trust, that’s something that he’s gotta go through,” Capel said. “That’s how I know that we can help him. Not just our team, but our university, our athletic department.”
With Johnson returning to practice, Capel said that he brings a great presence that will help his team prepare for future games, starting with North Carolina on Friday, Dec. 30.
“He’s a talented, young guy,” Capel said. “So, right now, we have a really good practice player. A guy that can simulate some really good guards that we’ll play against and give us a really good look. He’s good with the ball. He can shoot it, he can handle it. He has some creativity to him. He’s not afraid and he loves to play basketball. He loves to compete.”
Burton concurred with Capel on what Johnson brings to practice. He also said that Johnson is another player that will improve the team going forward.
“I just feel like it’s good to have everybody back in practice,” Burton said. “More able bodies, you know, we’re able to do more things on the scout, you know, having extra bodies out there, more reps, more opportunities to simulate our opponents. So it’s been good having him back and just try to get better each and every day.”
Burton said that when Johnson returned, he spoke to the locker room. The team had a “family meeting,” where the players put in their input on the situation, what they wanted to do and what was possible the rest of the season.
He also said that losing a teammate is tough, but it isn’t something that players are unfamiliar with at the college level. Burton also saw his former teammate, guard Ithiel Horton, serve a suspension last season for punching a police officer during a dispute.
“I would say nothing’s linear,” Burton said. “There’s always ebbs and flows, things that change, injuries and other things like that that could take away from the whole group being together. During those moments, it’s just next man up. Opportunities for other players as you’ve seen. We just try to get better as a group regardless who’s in the locker room and putting on the jersey.”
Hinson, who is coming off a fantastic game on the road against Syracuse on Dec. 20, which earned him ACC Co-Player of the Week honors, is happy to see Johnson back at practice and with the team.
“Good, it’s good to have everyone back,” Hinson said.