CU men’s basketball: Xavier Johnson takes step forward in potential comeback

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado senior forward Xavier Johnson, shown in a game last season, on Friday worked out as a full participant at practice for the first time since tearing his left Achilles tendon in June.

Whether Xavier Johnson completes his comeback this season in a Colorado Buffaloes uniform, or if he ultimately returns next fall for a fifth season, remains to be determined.

Yet any avenue toward an XJ comeback this season cleared a major hurdle Friday afternoon, as the senior forward worked out as a full participant at practice for the first time since tearing his left Achilles tendon in June.

Johnson previously had been participating in shooting and individual skill drills, but Friday marked his first appearance this season in full-speed team drills.

“It was good. It was good to get back out there and compete a little bit,” Johnson said. “I didn’t do every drill, but I did the live drill. So it was good to compete. Every day is a process. Every day I’m progressing.”

At this point, the previous idea that Johnson would either make an announced comeback or accept a medical redshirt has morphed into a situation likely to be determined by circumstance over the final two months of the season.

The first step in that process is Johnson getting into game shape, which at this juncture is not the case. Johnson still is experiencing noticeable weakness in his left calf, and his conditioning remains a work in progress.

Still, Friday’s exercise provided a major steppingstone for Johnson. After Sunday’s home date against Oregon (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), Johnson could conceivably be in uniform when CU plays at home again on Jan. 27 against Stanford.

“The doctors told me that I won’t tear my Achilles again now, so now it’s just a matter of getting my strength up in my calf,” Johnson said. “That’s about it. It’s all up in the air still. The big thing is getting back in game flow, getting back in shape. I’ve just got to keep doing that and keep working.”

When Johnson does get into game shape, it will be up to head coach Tad Boyle as to how, or even if, Johnson works into the CU rotation.

Certainly an injury would open the door to a comeback by Johnson. The absence of CU’s lone forward off the bench, sophomore Tory Miller, on Jan. 3 at Stanford exposed the Buffaloes’ thin depth up front. And any setback to the wing trio of George King, Josh Fortune and Tre’Shaun Fletcher also would increase the necessity of possible contributions from Johnson.

While Boyle was unavailable for comment on Friday — he left practice slightly early to get to Fort Collins in time for his son’s game with the Boulder Panthers at Poudre — CU’s head coach made it clear last week the decision remains in Johnson’s hands. If he has any physical setback in the upcoming weeks, or if no discernible role opens up for Johnson, taking a medical redshirt for a full return in 2016-17 remains an option.

“There’s no decision to be made until he’s healthy and ready to go,” Boyle said. “And the problem is, I don’t know when that date is going to be. He doesn’t know when that date is going to be.

“We’re just going day by day and seeing how he’s doing.”

CU still has one scholarship open for the 2016-17 roster but would have two available if Johnson indeed returns to the floor.

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