RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart was watching film and was caught somewhat off guard.
The film was of VCU's game at Virginia early last season, and with the clock winding down in what became a 59-56 victory for the Rams, he noticed that shooting guard Melvin Johnson was nowhere to be found.
"It really reminded me of how far he's come because he was not in the game in the crunch-time moments," Smart said Thursday, two days before the Rams (5-2) host the No. 7 Cavaliers (8-0). "It just kind of struck me because he's now one of our two or three best players and unquestionably is going to be in the game when it matters most."
And the Cavaliers would be wise to know where the mercurial Johnson is at all times.
While Smart doesn't flinch in anointing Treveon Graham with "best player on our team" status, Johnson is the one more likely to quickly turn a game in VCU's favor because of his deep range and tremendous confidence.
Voted the best sixth man in the Atlantic 10 Conference last season, Johnson wasted no time signaling that this season would be better. He scored 20 points in the first half of the Rams' opener against Tennessee, and they rolled, 85-69.
In an exhibition game before the season, he hit six 3s in just 17 minutes, and he hit five more 3s Wednesday night in a hard-fought 66-62 victory at Illinois State. For the season, he's 20 for 52 (38.5 percent) from beyond the arc.
And Graham, who has outscored Johnson 122-120 for the Rams, is delighted to see Johnson catch fire.
"When he's making threes, shooting the way I know he can shoot, people have to respect him. They can't help off that corner and that allows me to drive the lane and creates a lot more shots for me," he said. "Once he makes that first one, once he sees that ball go through the net, it's pretty hard to stop him."
Johnson, who said he shot about 25 times per game as a senior at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey, comes by his stroke honestly. He estimates he takes 300-450 shots a day on his own, shooting before practice, after practice and at night.
His accuracy has naturally drawn comparisons to Troy Daniels, the Rams' career 3-point leader now playing for the NBA's Houston Rockets, and that's a comparison Johnson cherishes. Even better, Smart and teammates have said that Johnson is a better all-around player because he can also drive to the basket and show off the floater he once labeled "the Melvin."
"It's big-time," Johnson said of the comparison to Daniels, a thoughtful look replacing his perpetual wide grin. "I mean, that guy's in the NBA. To be compared to anybody in the NBA, and for him to say a better player, I mean, coach Smart doesn't tell me things like that. He keeps me grounded and keeps me humble."
Once things start clicking on the floor, though, instinct takes over.
"My first couple of shots, I try to be as disciplined as possible, do what I do prior to the game, and then at that point, I can feel it just from my release point," he said. "I can just drop my hands and probably celebrate as the shot is going up.
"You can definitely tell as a shooter."
Or, it seems, as a teammate.
"Once he's on," Graham said, "we just try to get him the ball."
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