The Will Johnston Story: Part 1

Will Johnston
Will Johnston

This past Monday, Will Johnston was kind enough to sit down with me for a little over an hour to talk about his career and his future. His basketball career ended a little more than two months ago with an ACC Tournament loss to Miami. In 88 games, the former walk-on scored 218 points and played 1,206 minutes. 172 of his 192 career shot attempts were three-pointers. You all probably remember him as that guy who always played hard and who made a lot of three-pointers.

What you don’t realize is that Will has a very interesting story. Of all the basketball players to enroll in 2011, he was the only one to play all four years at Tech. Dorian Finney-Smith, Robert Brown, Marquis Rankin, CJ Barksdale and Joey van Zegeren did not finish their careers in Blacksburg. Christian Beyer did not join the team until 2012. Will also played for three different head coaches in four years. There aren’t very many guys who can say that.

Unfortunately for Johnston, his time at Virginia Tech did not go hand in hand with success on the court. The Hokies finished in last place in the ACC all four of his seasons.

“I’m probably the losingest player in college basketball history,” he joked.

Nevertheless, the losing was never for any lack of effort or determination on his part. He knew his role, and he generally played it well. His toughness quickly made him a favorite of Buzz Williams.

Everybody has a story, and I think Will Johnston’s is particularly entertaining. Once you finish this series, I think you’ll agree.

A Unique Path

When the fall semester began in 2011, Will Johnston was just a regular student. He wasn’t on the basketball team, and he certainly wasn’t a scholarship player who was expected to start and play major minutes. However, that’s exactly the status he attained by the time his career ended two months ago. What happened in between is an interesting story.

Johnston would have been perfectly happy as a regular Virginia Tech student, but his hard work and dedication earned him the right to experience much more.

“I really wanted to go to Tech because that’s where both my parents went,” Johnston said. “It feels like home to me. If I could walk on, then yeah, but if not, I’ll just have to accept it.”

As it turned out, he got that walk-on spot, and he used it to earn a scholarship. Before his career was over, he played in 88 games for the Hokies, starting 24 of them. Not bad for a guy whom nobody wanted coming out of Midlothian High School.

“Because he was a late bloomer and we had tired of the AAU circuit earlier, he wasn’t getting a ton of looks,” Johnston’s father, Billy Johnston, said. “He had played some AAU ball earlier, and between junior and senior year he played a lot. His team played CP3 down in Greensboro, and Will had scored 15 against a team with PJ Hairston (UNC) and a roster filled with D1 talent. His exposure was limited, and frankly too late. Even though he played in the 804 All Star game and won the 3-point shooting contest, it was still not enough. So when he was accepted at VT, we both kind of knew his basketball career was over and he would just enjoy going to the school both his parents went to, and one that he had been taken to numerous times growing up. All was good.”

That would have placed Johnston among the multitudes of good athletes whose careers ended after high school. He toyed with the idea of attending Massanutten Prep to further explore his basketball possibilities, but in the end he decided that it would be best to enroll at Virginia Tech as a regular student.

“I’d been coming to basketball and football games since I could walk,” Will said. “In high school, as a senior I remember getting my picture on the floor of Cassell Coliseum. I still have that picture. I remember thinking ‘oh the basketball team is so cool, I want to get their autographs.’ Now I’m so glad I didn’t,