Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
As Team Final continued to win games and inch closer to its ultimate goal of winning Peach Jam, James Johns wanted to avoid any outside distractions that would cause his group of highly-talented players to lose their tunnel vision of the goal at hand.
He used the metaphor of a protective chain or barrier to describe how to keep a group that was already close-knit, having grown up and played together from a young age, even more locked in.
“What goes on within this family stays here, and [we] make sure everyone is protected,” Johns said. “We didn’t let any noise, distractions or amount of negativity break the chain. Once we got down to Peach Jam and things got tougher, we told them to stay in the moment and accept the challenge of that day.”
James Johns Sr. (above) took a job with Fairfield one day after guiding Team Final to the 2021 Peach Jam championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Team Final took down Bradley Beal Elite, 64-61 in North Augusta (N.C.) late last month to claim their first-ever Peach Jam title. It’s a group that, at one time in May, featured three of the top five prospects in the class of 2022 in Jalen Duren, Emoni Bates and Dereck Lively II. Johns not only got those three to play together, but he guided them to the championship at a loaded Southern Jam Fest in Virginia.
And they were only three of the high-level prospects that the Team Final 17U squad featured — add in UConn commit Corey Floyd, LSU commit Justice Williams, Otega Oweh, Jameel Brown and Jaheim Bethea. Johns got them all to buy into his philosophy, learn to sacrifice production for a common goal and finally achieve that goal.
Johns has a distinct way of helping players achieve their potential while also understanding that, regardless of how talented they may be, each player has a different way of receiving feedback on their game. He can get his point across by working with each player individually and seeing them reach their potential is what makes being a coach so worthwhile for him.
“Everybody knows that and it’s well documented that the group won the MADE Hoops Championship in their eighth grade year,” Johns said. “We entered the [2021 summer] season as preseason No. 1, and it created this target and put this enormous pressure on the guys to live up to that billing.
“It was surreal throughout this spring and summer with the media attention, which brings more pressure within itself. You saw so much emotion when they won because it was ‘mission accomplished.’”
That elation felt following the Peach Jam championship continued as Johns accomplished not just one but two career goals as he accepted an offer to join the head coach Jay Young’s staff at Fairfield. He was formally announced an assistant coach on July 26, one day after raising the Peach Jam trophy with Team Final. Johns and Young’s relationship dates back to Young’s days as an assistant at Stony Brook and Rutgers when he was recruiting players in the WeR1 program where Johns was previously head coach.
Johns achieved a dream that came as a total surprise when presented to him.
“Coach Young had a shocking opening because he didn’t think he would have one,” Johns said. “We hadn’t talked in a while and Darren Savino had a conversation with him about me. Coach Young reached out to me afterward and we started having conversations. In my mind, I thought it was a long shot.”
Johns has known Savino, the associate head coach at UCLA, since Johns was coaching at the high school level at Life Center Academy (N.J.). Both from New Jersey, Johns views Savino as his “mentor” because he is one of the main reasons Johns got into coaching. Their connection has gone both ways; Johns helped connect Savino, then on Mick Cronin’s staff at Cincinnati, to his nephew Nysier Brooks, who played for the Bearcats and then at Miami (Fl.)
“Our relationship has been pretty vast,” Johns said. “I speak to him almost weekly. He’s had a huge influence on my coaching career.”
Johns (above, with clipboard) guided Team Final to the Southern Jam Fest title over Team Takeover with a roster that featured Duren, Bates and Lively. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Johns played collegiately at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, then West Chester University. He began his coaching career at Wilmington Friends (Del.) in 2010 then made the jump to Life Center two years later, where he coached Traci Carter, who just finished up his collegiate career at the University of Hartford. He then took an assistant role at Advanced Prep International (Texas) in 2014 where he mentored and developed players such as Duke’s Trevon Duval, Terrance Ferguson, who spent time with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers, and Mark Vital, who is coming off a national title with Baylor.
Following his stint in Texas, he took his first college coaching gig at Southwest Mississippi, a JUCO in Summit (Miss.), as an assistant. That is where his love of coaching really began to take shape.
“I took a year off and worked but fell in love with grassroots basketball,” Johns said. “I ended up at Southwest Mississippi as a JUCO coach and that piqued my interest in college. That’s when I knew I wanted to coach college basketball.”
As the head coach of the WeR1 17U team, he developed a multitude of Division I prospects in Neumann-Goretti’s Quade Green, who played at Kentucky and Washington; Blair Academy’s Kodye Pugh, who played at Stanford and Loyola Marymount; UConn’s Tyrese Martin, Maryland’s Eric Ayala and Miami (Fla.)’s Isaiah Wong, who was a two-time Philadelphia Catholic League MVP at Bonner-Prendergast. Johns propelled WeR1 to the 2016 and 2017 Under Armour Association (UAA) championships, with the latter team being led by Wong, Ayala, Martin and Malik Curry, who began his career at Old Dominion and will continue it with West Virginia next season.
After a successful run with WeR1, Johns returned to the high school ranks at Concord High School (Del.) in 2017 and stayed there for three seasons. He began his run with Team Final that same year; his son, James Johns Jr., plays at Salesianum School (Del.) and was with Final's 16U team this summer.
A major aspect of the transition from his days as a high school coach and on the AAU circuit to the Division I level is relationship building. While some coaches may have difficulty getting up and running, Johns Sr. has built a litany of contacts along his journey to this point.
“Everything is relationship driven,” Johns said. “I studied basketball a lot and it became my biggest hobby. It’s my passion so I’m always looking to get better. I’m always watching and learning then having conversations with guys who I’ve built relationships with. Studying how coaches handle themselves on the sideline and their demeanor is important.”
Last season, Fairfield (10-17, 7-11 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) reached the conference tournament championship game before falling to Rick Pitino and Iona and they have plenty of talent coming back. Leading scorer and rising senior Jake Wojcik (13.5 points per game) returns, as does 6-4 guard Taj Benning, a graduate student who averaged 12.0 ppg and played at Bergen Catholic (N.J.). Rising sophomore Supreme Cook, a 6-9 forward who played at the Peddie School (N.J.) and avg. 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds while starting 10 games, should have an expanded role in year two.
Johns brings a lot to the table but most importantly, his ability to find players’ strengths, much like he did with a loaded squad in Team Final, is what sets him apart from other coaches in his field. It’s something he hopes he can build on and develop further at the next level.
“In AAU, we always try to focus on doing what we do well,” Johns said. “Let’s focus on the things that you do well, then let’s spend some time working on strengthening those other things. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you're a great athlete, let’s go show coaches how great of an athlete you are. The same goes for a great shooter. That’s what coaches want to see because they’re looking for guys to fill a role within their system. It eliminates mistakes that way.”
While it may be a shift for Johns having just coached one of the deepest teams on the Nike circuit, his rise to a Division I coach is much like his lesson to Team Final: focus on the task in front of you and stay true to your virtues.