February 9, 2010

The Joy is Back for Joyner

Feb. 9, 2010

Justin Joyner had a bigger wound than the fracture in his right wrist, held together by a screw.

Something ached worse than his severely sprained right ankle, held together by rolls of tape.

There was nothing that could hold his pride intact as he sat for most of the last two seasons, watching his UCSB teammates play basketball without him.

"It was definitely in my head," Joyner said. "'Can I do this anymore?'"

Coach Bob Williams had spent the previous two years calling Joyner his warrior. He had been his starting point guard even as a freshman, and he had the Big West Conference's best assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore during the Gauchos' championship season of 2007-08.

But there was a chink in the warrior's armor when as Joyner returned to the court on a gimpy ankle after his redshirt season.

"A huge one. Huge," Williams said. "It took the fun out of the game for him. He wasn't able to do what he thinks he can do.

"He's not the most patient kid in America, anyway, and it's been real challenging for him to hang in."

And so Williams shut Joyner down for the first five games of Big West play, giving time for all body parts to mend -- his heart, in particular.

"It's been tough," said Joyner, a 6-foot junior point guard. "You know, I've been really negative, thinking about it.

"I wasn't negative toward anyone else, just to myself. I was really hard on myself. I wasn't looking at the positive things -- that I'm playing for a great coach, a great coaching staff, and that I've got a bunch of good guys around me.

"And we're winning."

The Gauchos, 12-8 and 8-3 in the Big West, have won eight of their last 10 games to pull within a half-game of first-place Pacific.

Assistant coach Matt Stock talked with Joyner during the darkest days, helping to coax him out of his shadowy silence.

"I got away from being myself in terms of leading," Joyner said. "I wasn't out there being a vocal leader because I felt I'm not playing a lot of minutes, so I really can't make much of a difference in terms of leading. How am I going to lead?

"Coach Stock has been really talking to me about it, trying to get me back. And I have found ways to lead in my own way and keep guys' spirits up, whether I'm on the bench or I'm playing. Finding my niche in terms of leading has been a big challenge for me, but I think I've kind of found it."

Williams returned Joyner to the court two weeks ago and played him 24 minutes -- mostly out of necessity -- when UCSB's game against Cal State Fullerton went into overtime. The junior guard responded with three assists and no turnovers in an 85-80 win.

"J.J. came in and contributed so much for us," leading scorer Orlando Johnson noted afterward. "I know he's pretty tired. You should've heard him in the locker room. He was, 'Man, I felt like I played 40 minutes out there.'

"I said, 'Oh, c'mon old man!' "

The old man has been a steady hand for the Gauchos ever since. In his five games back -- four of them victories -- he's handed out 20 assists with just five turnovers.

His eight assists during just 15 minutes of action were a key to Saturday's 81-77 victory at UC Davis.

"He's making better decisions, for the most part," Williams said. "He's seeing things that he hasn't been seeing before.

"To be honest with you, he's probably a couple of weeks away from being J.J., the way he was. But how about that duo, J.J. and Will Brew? Before, when we'd be going through stretches with Will out, we'd get outscored by nine, 10 points. But our point-guard play against Davis was the difference. That was sensational point-guard play with those two."

The leadership void was expected to widen nine games ago when senior captain Paul Roemer joined Joyner on the sidelines with a stress fracture in his foot. But Joyner said Brew stepped right into that role, just as he had the starting point-guard position his freshman year while Joyner was redshirting.

"I think Will has done a great job -- I mean, a really great job," he said. "He's playing really well, playing under control. Last year, he struggled a little bit with that, it being his first year. But this year he's really under control and has his stuff together.

"The sky's the limit for him, with the way he's playing."

The biggest transition for Joyner has been getting used to his teammates. The last time he was really running the show two years ago, it was to feed the ball to the likes of Alex Harris, Chris Devine and Ivan Elliott -- all three of whom are now playing professionally in Europe.

"I really haven't played with these guys a lot," Joyner said. "I play with them in practice, but this is like my first year with them, and they're already really good playing together.

"I'm just trying to find my niche and play my game with them. It's been a little bit of a struggle, especially with my body being injured. But I think I'm starting to find it."

Williams said he'd even like to start playing Brew and Joyner together.

"You see the charges he takes, the passes he makes -- J.J. doesn't need to score a point to make us better," he said.

Joyner actually hasn't scored a point so far this season in 184 minutes of play. He said he doesn't think about it, except when his mother, Cheryl, brings it up.

"She tells me, 'If you get an open shot, shoot it,' " Joyner said. "I tell her, 'All right, mom, OK,' just to make her happy."

Her son is now starting to feel that way, too.

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