Injury forced Trey Johnson from fastballs to 3-balls
Jackson State's Trey Johnson is averaging almost 30 ppg. Not bad for a guy who started out as a pitcher at Alcorn State, writes Kyle Whelliston.
JACKSON, Miss. -- Trey Johnson catches the ball five feet to the right of the basket along the baseline and wheels around in the post to block his primary defender's reach with his body. The second opponent closes in from the top of the key, planting his feet a few claustrophobia-inducing inches from Johnson, waving his arms and grabbing at the protagonist's white-and-blue Jackson State jersey.
Johnson, though, rises into the air arrow straight, lifting the basketball as he twists to face the basket. As he becomes airborne, he falls away at an ever-so-slight angle just before release, giving him all the three-dimensional space he needs. A perfectly rotated shot leaves the shooter's hands, and the fingers of a third defender -- one who has run across the lane to provide help -- lunge toward the ball, instead glancing across Johnson's forearm.
It doesn't matter; the ball swishes through the net anyway.
Trey Johnson, and one; it's a scene that has repeated itself hundreds of times so far this season. The SWAC's most outstanding player in recent memory has scored an average of 29.6 points per game, spending the season locked in a battle for Division I's scoring championship with Rice's Morris Almond (Almond currently leads by a tenth of a point).
In addition, Johnson's Tigers have been doing what few teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference have been able to do in recent years -- beat teams from other leagues. The SWAC closed nonconference play with an abysmal 12-82 record (.128), but nearly half of those victories -- five of them -- belong to JSU. The Tigers beat Rutgers and UTEP on the road before the calendar turned, and they're 9-8 overall with a 3-1 record in league play.
That all is in huge part thanks to their soft-spoken, 6-foot-5, 218-pound senior leader with an iron rod for a backbone. The SWAC preseason player of the year has drawn considerable interest from NBA scouts -- despite the shoot-first, ask-questions-later reputation of the conference's top gunners.
"One of the scouts was talking to me the other day," Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson said recently. "He said, 'I thought he was a kid who shoots a bunch of bad shots and shoots 50 times to get 25 points.' He's not. He rarely takes bad shots."
"Johnson has a very well-developed touch and is great around the basket," said one Western Conference scout who observed Johnson at a mini-tournament in Chicago in late November. "But he also plays with impeccable poise and maturity."
The poise lets Johnson focus squarely on his game; he claims he doesn't keep track of his stats, and his coach and teammates vouch for him on that count. And the maturity helps him take the good performances in stride (like his 49 points on 15-for-29 shooting that helped JSU down UTEP) and shrug off the ones that aren't up to par (a 9-for-25 night against defending champ Southern on Monday).
"I've got confidence that I can shoot my way out of any slump," Johnson said. "That's my job, to score. Even if it's not working at the free-throw line, I'm getting those extra repetitions to get my stroke down again."
"It doesn't matter because he's going to give you something where there's nothing there," Anderson said. "A kid like that, you can't collar him too much, you've got to let the leash out."
But Johnson doesn't take his responsibilities as team leader and the conference's focal point lightly.
"Night in and night out, I know I have to prove myself to somebody," he said. "They're not only watching me for what I can do, they're also judging me on what they think I can't do, and I love that challenge."
There's an alternate reality in which some other player is dominating the SWAC basketball scoring race, one where the scouts are out watching someone else instead. In a previous and recent incarnation, Johnson was a baseball player, a fireballing pitching prospect who could make you swing way too early with a devastating changeup.
"I only really started basketball on a competitive level recently," Johnson said. "I only played one AAU summer when I was 12 years old. Other than that, I played a little at the YMCA, I played middle school basketball, stuff like that. I played in ninth grade, but I didn't play in 10th grade because I wanted to focus on baseball."
When Johnson transferred to Jackson's Murrah High for his junior year, he went out for basketball, too -- he didn't think he'd make the team, but he found a role as a part-time player. Anderson, during his tenure as coach at Murray State, came to town to watch Murrah play on a recruiting trip, and to this day can't remember seeing Johnson out on the floor.
But in Johnson's first collegiate appearance on the mound for Alcorn State, his first college, his baseball career came to an abrupt close.
"I ended up tearing a ligament in my elbow," Johnson recalled. "I was going to need Tommy John surgery that was going to take me out for a year. That was the end of it."
And just like that, Johnson was a full-time basketball player. He played his sophomore season for Sammy West's Braves, scoring 11 points per game and shooting 41 percent from 3.
"It never bothers me playing basketball," Johnson said of his elbow injury. "I can still throw a baseball hard right now; I just can't throw for a long period of time. But I don't look back on all that and I really don't think about it at all. I started so early with baseball, and it was like a job from the beginning. I got kind of burnt out on it, so I don't regret anything."
Especially not once his untapped potential as a basketball sharpshooter was discovered. Johnson, unhappy with a tumultuous 18-loss campaign in 2003-04, followed the same transfer path as JSU legend and current Detroit Piston Lindsey Hunter, moving from Alcorn to Jackson State. Anderson says that Johnson was the best player in practice during that NCAA-mandated transfer year, and sure enough, Johnson exploded onto the SWAC scene as a junior. He was the 11th-leading scorer nationally with 23.4 ppg, hitting the 20-point mark on 16 occasions, surpassing 30 five times and achieving a career high of 40 (on 15-of-27 shooting) versus Texas Southern in mid-January.
But the Tigers' season ended on a sour note at the SWAC Tournament in Birmingham as the Tigers took a 66-59 elimination at the hands of old-time rival and eventual SWAC champ Southern. Johnson shot a disappointing 6-for-18 in that game (16 points total), and began planning for his senior campaign immediately thereafter.
"While some take a vacation, Trey started work the very next day [after the semifinal loss]," Anderson said. "When I came back from recruiting in the summer, people told me they couldn't get him out of the gym. He worked out all the time, running, doing the steps, playing pickup, lifting a lot of weights."
Johnson's offseason work didn't necessarily hone his growing legendary status around the league but it did help him leverage his presence and reputation. There's another scene that has repeated itself hundreds of times this season: Without the ball, Johnson draws two or three defenders to him and leads them around the floor like a human bug lamp, opening up wide swaths of floor upon which the other Tigers can move freely. Indeed, two other JSU players are near double figures and three are shooting 50 percent or better; as a team, JSU is averaging 74.3 ppg, more than five more than its nearest SWAC competitor.
"Every game, I see the double-, triple-teams, I just weather the storm and play through," Johnson said. "I can help my team in other ways. I tell my teammates, 'We're going to see some crazy defenses, so get ready, you're going to be open.'"
"Trey's becoming a great defender, too," Anderson said. "Up at Rutgers, he made the stop that got us the ball back and gave us the opportunity to win the game. He just works so hard on all elements of his game. He does all the little things to make him a better all-around basketball player. He wants to be the best."
And as Johnson develops further as an all-around player and readies Jackson State for a run at overcoming Southern for its first NCAA appearance since 2000, there's yet another scene that keeps repeating itself in Johnson's head. It's the one about hearing his name called in June, becoming the first player from the SWAC in 12 years to be chosen in the NBA draft. JSU's Dwayne Whitfield was the last, picked by Golden State in the second round in 1995.
"I don't want to just play in the NBA, I want to make history when I get there," Johnson said. "It's a goal and a dream of mine to play at the next level. The more I play, the more it becomes closer to being a reality."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.