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FSU welcomes back center

Alexander Johnson wasn't physically missing last season, but his stamina and promise were gone. Now, hard work has him back in form.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published November 19, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - If you're like most folks around campus, you might be guilty of a double take.

Is that really junior center Alexander Johnson?

The taut face and frame is familiar, the height unmistakable, but it's understandably difficult to make the connection when all you can picture is the puffiness you saw last season. Remember the effervescent smile from two years ago? Yeah, well, not so much when all you saw last season was a scowl born from frustration.

But the 6-foot-9 Johnson dropped about 20 pounds since June and is now a svelte 230, regaining a form that should allow him to last longer than a hockey shift and, more important, be far more effective around the basket.

"Last year, I gained all that weight and I'd go down the court like twice and I'd be ready to come out because I was fatigued," he said. "I'd never played with that much weight on. Now, I'm back to my old weight and probably a little less, so I just feel good."

He has also regained an ever-present grin that speaks volumes about his attitude and fortitude.

"I feel great," he said.

Yes, really.

That's Alexander Johnson.

"It's different, I tell you what," senior guard Andrew Wilson said of his teammate's appearance and demeanor. "You can tell he definitely went to work over the summer. ... He's a much more confident player this year."

"I had the chance to watch him play as early as his sophomore year in high school and the one thing he always impressed you with was his athleticism," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "If that weight loss has the effect I think it could have, it'll make him quicker, quicker to the boards and certainly quicker running the court."

That bodes well for the Seminoles, who open the season tonight at Jacksonville, if this year's Johnson is more like the one from the 2003-04 season when he appeared to be a star-in-the-making.

As a freshman, he averaged 9.5 points on 55 percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds in about 21 minutes a game, earning a spot on the ACC all-freshman team that included Duke's Luol Deng and Wake Forest's Chris Paul, both of whom would be NBA lottery picks.

No wonder UConn, Cincinnati, Kentucky and Indiana were wooing the former standout from Georgia who earned his high school diploma from a prep school in Maine.

Going into last season, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton expected a more seasoned Johnson to be the ideal complement to newcomer Diego Romero. Johnson's power in the low post and Romero's passing and shooting from the high post would spread defenses and help create space for his talented, but inexperienced perimeter players.

But then the Johnson he thought he'd see went missing. Yes, Johnson struggled with a nagging hamstring injury and the stress of losing nine games by a total of 19 points. Mostly, he struggled to build on what he had done a year earlier. He averaged 6.8 points on 45.5 percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds in nearly 28 minutes.

"I know I had a bad year; I know I'm definitely better than what I showed last year," he said. "I knew I had to do something about it."

The Internet message boards suggested that act would involve finding a fresh start elsewhere. When he went home after the first summer session, most assumed he'd left Tallahassee for good.

Johnson, however, said transferring wasn't a consideration and Hamilton historically hasn't lost players he wanted around. Trust us. He wanted Johnson, if Johnson found his old form and function.

He has. Instead of three big meals a day, Johnson began to eat six smaller meals with more vegetables and fruits. He drank more water. And he worked out more.

"A.J. came to the realization that diet was important, that conditioning was important," Hamilton said. "He's maintained his weight and he's been doing a lot more running. He's just becoming more and more a student of the game. He's doing all the little things that are necessary for him to stay focused and reach his potential. Kids go through phases of development and he's gone through his. I think you'll be impressed."

Johnson scored 20 points in an exhibition win Sunday. If he stays fit and happy, it's not that difficult to picture him compiling stats that might make you think Duke's Shelden Williams or Wake Forest's Eric Williams.

Talk about a double take.

Yes, that might just be Alexander Johnson.

"I just feel like I'm coming into my own and no one will be able to stop me this year," said Johnson unabashedly, a contrast to his usual reserved, yes-sir, no-sir manner. "I'm coming in with the attitude that I know no one can stop me."