By Brett Bosley
In the summer of 2016, Head Coach Will Wade announced the addition of former NBA player Johnny Taylor to the newly created position of director of player development. It hasn’t taken long for Taylor’s wealth of experience to rub off on the VCU program.
Taylor’s responsibilities come off the court rather than on, as he helps VCU student-athletes on a personal level as they grind through the trials and tribulations of a full season.
“My duty is to give the players an idea of what they need to have moving forward. I’ve been at their level, and I was fortunate enough to play at all the pro levels,” said Taylor. “I want to give them an idea of what’s expected and what to do. I also coordinate with [Video Coordinator] Alex Wharton with video editing. I talk to the players individually about certain techniques, maybe a shooting technique or maybe a drop step technique. I oversee some classes to make sure the guys get to class on time. I can’t be on the court, but I am able to help the guys with a skill set when time allows.”
Taylor, a former college stand out at Chattanooga and 17th overall draft pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to Richmond. After retiring from pro basketball only a few short years ago, Taylor looked to return to Chattanooga to finish his degree. Soon after, he became acquainted with Wade, who took over the Chattanooga program in 2013. It seemed like a natural fit.
“Coach Wade has been great. I joke that I’m the oldest person on the staff. For a guy that has accomplished so much at a young age; he’s phenomenal,” Taylor said. “I was just finishing my pro basketball career, and I reached out to [Assistant Coach] Wes Long, and he put me in contact with Wade. It just so happened he was looking to get his head coaching career started and he was looking to merge the alumni with him at Chattanooga. So he brought me on there, and when he came here he already had other things in place. After a year of that he ended bringing me here as well. It’s been a great bond. I enjoy his bright mind. I still enjoy learning from him.”
“All of our guys want to play professionally, and he was a draft pick. He also had a tremendous career overseas,” said Wade. “His career path, whether it be the NBA or overseas, is something our guys want. So it’s great for our guys to be able to get first-hand experience, and first-hand knowledge from a guy like Johnny.”
Senior Jordan Burgess had improved under Taylor’s presence. The fifth-year senior is posting career-high shooting percentages overall and from 3-point range. Burgess has become a go-to player who Taylor refers to as a “glue guy” in the VCU offense.
“He has helped me improve a lot, mostly giving me confidence,” said Burgess. “He told me to look for my shot more in the system that we run, and he’s just a guy that can relate to me and other players.”
Taylor refers to himself as a “basketball fanatic”, and was well aware of the program he was joining when joining the VCU Rams.
“I knew that Anthony Grant coached here. I also knew that [Jeff] Capel coached here, as well as my former coach Mack McCarthy. I knew a little bit about the program. I watched them a lot when Eric Maynor was here. I’m an underdog kind of guy. I was a part of that rally system hoping VCU would hit that last shot to go to the national championship game. I’ve been following them a little bit.”
Taylor began playing basketball at a young age, around seven years old. He was always small, standing only 5-foot-9 his sophomore year of high school. By the time his senior year rolled around, Taylor had grown to 6-6 and averaging 17 points per game.
“Everyone was wondering when my high school got a new player. I was relatively unknown and under-recruited,” said Taylor. “By the time my freshman year started I was 6-8 and my athleticism was through the roof. I went to a couple of colleges and it didn’t work out, so I went home and started working. I was the prototypical unknown athlete, diamond in the rough. The assistant coach at Chattanooga was after me my senior year, but I didn’t want to go to JUCO. Then he came back in ’94, I was playing Pro-Am in the arena at Tennessee-Chattanooga, and Gerald Wilkins was a former alumni there, and I was giving him the business up there and he came down and said, ‘Man where have you been?’”
That’s when everything changed for Taylor, who then had his chance to prove himself at the Division I level.
“He asked what I had been doing, and I told him I had been working the third shift at the carpet mill at night. I sleep all day, get up and play basketball and then go back to work at night. He said, ‘We need to get you in school.’ My grades were so bad because I didn’t have anything to look forward to. He sent me to Indian Hill, the powerhouse Junior College. Everything took off from there. I was a Second Team All-American, lead the team in scoring and rebounding. Because he made that commitment to me, I committed back to Tennessee-Chattanooga even though I could have gone anywhere in the country. It worked out for me. I had the chance to play in the NCAA Sweet 16.”
Taylor would eventually lead the Mocs in scoring in back-to-back seasons and win the 1997 Southern Conference Player of the Year award after averaging 17.3 points and 7.2 rebounds. He scored more than 1,000 points in just two seasons. In 1997, Taylor led 14th-seeded Chattanooga to upsets over Georgia and Illinois on the way to the NCAA Sweet 16.
With that experience in the NCAA Tournament, Taylor’s knowledge is just an added bonus for a VCU program that has reached six straight tournaments.
“You have to be sure that you’re taking care of your business. The small things like turnovers, execution, or paying attention to the scouting report. Ultimately it comes down to the matchup. If you get a favorable matchup, you ought to exploit that. Sometimes you get teams that are just powerhouse teams. It comes down to matchups and paying attention to details. You have to have a fair amount of luck on your side. You have to go out and execute. Every game we play right now matters in terms of seeding for the NCAA Tournament.”
With the 17th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic took Taylor, who was grateful for the opportunity.
“It’s a very small pool of athletes. It’s a very rare opportunity and it worked out in my favor,” Taylor said. “I was an hour and a half from the director of NBA scouting at the time. I was making a lot of noise right up the highway, so he had to come see who was making all that noise. It worked out. It’s one of the most memorable events a person can have. Every year the draft comes around it just takes me back. It’ll be 20 years this year. It changed my life, not just for me but for my family and for my kids.”
For Taylor, it was an adjustment period. Adjusting to the NBA was something that took him a while to learn. But once he figured out what he needed to do, Taylor began seeing playing time.
“First thing I had to learn, I was fortunate enough to play for the great Chuck Daly, so I learned that your work ethic is key. They don’t wait for you. You’re either in there doing what you’re supposed to do or the bus just keeps on trucking. If you’re not in the gym, they don’t care. They will pass you by. They will trade you or cut you. I had to learn that really quick,” he said. “The difference between that pro and that college player is that mentality. The pro sees this hotshot college player coming in and he’ll think that this college player is going to steal his spot or his shine. If you’re not ready, they’ll eat you alive. It’s a business, and you have to your mind ready and set to deal with it as a business. I can honestly say that it took three quarters of my rookie year to figure that out. When I figured it out I started playing. It made me a better pro. I had to be working everyday.”
Burgess added on Taylor’s pro experience. “When you have a guy who is on the staff that has played in the NBA, you want to pick their brain as much as you can. A lot of information he gives us is very valuable, and can help us. A lot of guys want to play professionally, whether it’s in the NBA or overseas, and he’s done both. He had a really long career, so listening to him really helps us all around in our game.”
Taylor credits many people in helping him get to that point in his career, and helped him become the man and basketball player he wanted to be.
“Early on in college it was Gerald White. He was coach under Mack McCarthy, and he was an assistant coach at Chattanooga. He is a good friend of mine now. He recognized something in me that I couldn’t recognize in myself. He made me go to the gym and work on pro things because he knew I was a pro before I knew I was a pro. He knew the college game was just a stepping stone for me. He worked on my post game and on my left hand. I didn’t realize what he was doing at the time, but he was preparing for that. Then it was Gerald Wilkins. The whole summer leading up to my senior year I was working with him and his trainer. He pushed me and taught me the ways of being a pro. Once I got to the league it was Darrell Armstrong. I always had my support system, my mom. They didn’t know all things basketball, but they told me to keep my head up when things aren’t going my way.”
Taylor would play three seasons in the NBA with Orlando and the Denver Nuggets before embarking on a successful playing career overseas that included stops in Italy, Spain and Russia.
His transition into coaching was easier with the people he had learned from, but naturally for any athlete, it was harder not being on the court than anything in the adjustment period.
“The large adjustment was not being able to be on the court. It wasn’t a huge adjustment in dealing with the players because I’m still a player. It was easy for me to translate what I’ve learned and know what they’re going through and communicate that with them and also communicate with the coaching staff because I know what they’re feeling. The biggest transition was just not being on the court. When you see something and not being able to go out there do something. You have to be able to deliver your message to them and get them to do the message you’re trying to get them to achieve.”
But now as part of the Rams, Taylor believes this team is destined for success, and will be able to provide that success not just this season, but for years to come.
“Absolutely. The coaching staff has done an incredible job putting together the talent. The development process with what they have done with these guys has been nothing short of amazing. This year, because you rarely get six seniors on a team, we definitely have the potential to do some great things. We have the experience. We have the talent. This is the year to definitely take advantage.”