Julian Champagnie separated his thumb and pointer finger ever so slightly.
He was that close to keeping his name in the NBA draft; that close to a decision that would have significantly impacted St. John’s hopes for the coming season; that close to leaving college behind and joining his twin brother, Justin, in the professional ranks.
“I didn’t want to come back,” he said bluntly. “For most of the time I was out [testing the draft waters], school wasn’t really a priority for me, if I’m being honest.”
Ultimately, the Big East’s reigning leading scorer opted to return, and with that choice, he became one of the most popular people in Queens on July 4. With that decision, the 6-foot-8 Champagnie set up the Johnnies for what could be a season the fan base has been awaiting for more than two decades, one in which they could advance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
Champagnie, sitting down for an interview with The Post this week before a summer workout at Carnesecca Arena, didn’t shy away from the hype that has returned since he opted to come back to school.
“Yes, our goal is to win a Big East championship, and yes, our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win games,” he said, without hesitation. “Not get there and lose. Get there and win multiple games, if we can.”
Champagnie worked out for three teams, the Bulls, Celtics and Nets, and took part in the NBA Draft Combine. For large stretches, he felt the tug of his dream. His focus was on going pro.
A few factors changed his mind. One was a wrist injury that limited him to just one workout before the combine. If not for that setback, he said, St. John’s might be looking for a new small forward. Perhaps the most important day was his workout with the Bulls after the combine.
Following that workout, he sat down with Chicago’s associate general manager, Brian Hagen. They had a lengthy conversation, going over the many pros and cons of staying in school compared to leaving. After that talk, Champagnie began thinking for the first time about returning to St. John’s. Why settle for being the 50th pick in the draft, he thought? Why not bet on yourself? He had just turned 20 years old. Age isn’t a concern for him.
“I’m super young still. I’m in a good place,” he said. “My name has already gotten out there. Everybody here has put in work, we’ll have a better team in my opinion than last year. I just felt like coming back for one more year is not going to hurt me. It can only help me or keep me in the same spot.”
After coming back to the area prior to a workout with the Nets, Champagnie had made his mind up to return. One of the first people he told was St. John’s point guard Posh Alexander, his longtime friend. Alexander hadn’t lobbied him to return, encouraging him to chase his dreams. But when last season’s Big East Freshman of the Year got the news, he smiled.
“All right, let’s work,” Alexander told Champagnie.
Coach Mike Anderson was thrilled with the decision his star made, and not because of what it meant for his team. Anderson has seen how far Champagnie has come, from under-recruited to one of the best freshmen in the league to its leading scorer last year. He thinks there is another major leap his star can make to really set himself up for the future.
“You give yourself an opportunity not necessarily to just be in the league, but have a career in the league,” Anderson said. “That’s something we talked about.”
Sometimes when players opt to return to school, they focus too much on what NBA teams and executives tell them to work on to the detriment of their college team. Champagnie doesn’t believe that will be the case for him. His focus is on improving as a defender, tightening his ball-handling, improving his pace, and further developing his perimeter game. Those are all things that will only help St. John’s, improvements he had previously discussed with Anderson before coming back to school.
“What I need to do runs into how we play,” Champagnie said. “It’ll run right into it perfectly. I don’t think I need coach to change too much for me.”
Champagnie just met several of his new St. John’s teammates this week. Of the five transfers, he only had a previous relationship with Yonkers native Joel Soriano. But he has watched all of the others play before, and thinks this is a roster capable of doing big things, one with more size, versatility and depth.
It is part of the reason Champagnie returned, because of the potential he sees. He isn’t planning to be back for his senior year. This is it — one last go-around to go out with a bang.
“I have no regrets that I’m back,” he said. “I love this place. All the coaches and the kids welcomed me back with open arms. I’m 100 percent confident in the choice that I made.
“I just [want] to do something that hasn’t been done at St. John’s in a while, bring St. John’s back to where it was. That’s our goal. That’s the goal I’m going to set for the team, something I’m going to push for.”