Standing beneath the low block, Keyontae Johnson grips his hands tightly on his shorts just above his knees, with an expressionless, unpredictable poker face showing no signs of fear.
In these moments, he appears calm. The fire inside, however, is ready to burst.
What comes next seems like something straight from a video game, but it has become a signature staple of his Tour de Flight at Oak Hill Academy (VA) this season.
A simple down screen by a teammate. A short wheel route from Johnson to the middle of the lane. An inbounds lob thrown somewhere just south of the Moon. A thunderous, cock-back dunk that makes jaws drop.
“It’s mostly if I stretch good, then I feel bouncy, and I just throw down everything I got to get the crowd into it,” Johnson says following his 15-point, six-rebound performance in a recent win over No. 3 University School (FL) at the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, MA.
Time and time again, from coast to coast, the 6-6 high-flying shooting guard has made the impossible plays nobody on the court, or perhaps even the country, can make look simple, and the tough travel stretches with a national schedule seem like a casual stroll in the park.
Crowds in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, Oregon, Missouri, and Massachusetts have already witnessed it this season. Countless others have watched from afar.
And through it all, he does it quietly.
“I don’t talk as much,” he admits with a short laugh. “That’s just me.”
What Johnson, a Florida signee, doesn’t vocalize on the court, he makes up for it with a high motor, an improving jump shot, and sheer ferocity each time he steps on the floor for the No. 2 Warriors, who head into this weekend’s ARS Rescue Rooter National Hoopfest in Tampa, FL, with an unblemished 28-0 record.
Add in a 41-inch max vertical leap, highlighted by windmill dunks and ridiculous alley-oops, and it’s easy to understand why Johnson is a problem to contain.
To put that number into perspective, here is how good his leaping ability is: Of the 55 prospects who tested at the 2017 NBA Combine, only three had a higher max vertical leap. Less than 13 percent of players even jumped 40 inches.
Johnson saw his stock blow up while averaging 12.9 points on nearly 70 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds per game for the famed Boo Williams (VA) program during the Nike EYBL Finals at Peach Jam. And in an age in which flash can oftentimes override substance, Johnson simply goes about his business instead of pounding his chest for attention on a squad full of stars.
“He does everything for us,” says Warriors head coach Steve Smith, noting Johnson has not played a bad game all season. “He does all of the little things, too. He’s getting loose balls. He’s getting putbacks. He accepts his role. He’s not jealous of Keldon (Johnson, a Kentucky signee and 2018 McDonald’s All-American selection) or anybody else out there.
“He’s going to give us everything he has every night and usually that gets it done for us.”
Johnson is quiet and unassuming, perhaps, but he is also a do-it-all model of consistency for the Warriors.
Need him to score? Watch him put his head down and get to the rim. Need him to defend? Look at the way he pressures the opposing team’s best player. Need him to create energy? Get out of his way.
“He’s an exciting player, can do it all. Definitely a high flyer,” longtime teammate Keldon Johnson raves. “When he gets on the break, it’s showtime. All you have to do, if he’s cutting, just throw it near the rim. He’s going to get it. Trust me.
“Once he gets going, it’s a problem. Both of us going, it’s a long night.”
What’s crazy is Keyontae Johnson didn’t exactly expect to be on this stage with Oak Hill.
After transferring from Norview (VA) to IMG Academy (FL) prior to his junior season, the Hampton Roads, VA, native, quickly found a home with the Ascenders and had every intention to stay.
He was close with IMG head coach Vince Walden. He fell in love with the state-of-the-art weight room. He became comfortable in his starting role on a star-studded team.
But once Walden left IMG to take the assistant coaching vacancy at Arkansas State, the rest of the staff left and the roster dispersed. Johnson’s top option was to return home to play with Boo Williams teammate Keldon Johnson and for the country’s most prestigious program.
“I thought about Coach Smith. He’s a legendary coach, and I could learn from him,” Keyontae recalls. “I decided to go to Oak Hill and it was closer to home.
“I just wanted to do my senior year close to home because I’m already from Virginia and it’s easier for my parents to get to games.”
Needless to say, it has worked out for all parties in Oak Hill’s chase for another national title.
“He’s vital. Everybody looks at Keldon, but if we didn’t have Keyontae, we wouldn’t be where we are today, there’s no question,” Smith says. “And those two play so well together. They know each other and kind of feed off each other. When one is playing well, the other is rooting for him, and most nights they both play well.”
Before he headlines more highlight reels at the next level, Johnson took flight at the National Hoopfest against St. Petersburg (FL) on Jan. 20 live on FloHoops, where he knew the Florida faithful will be in full force.
“I know there are going to be Gator fans down there so I’m going to show them what I can do,” he said.
Will they see another show?
“Oh yeah,” he added confidently. “They can expect it, for sure.”
The way Johnson is playing, it’s hard to envision anything less.
To watch Keyontae Johnson’s in action at the National Hoopfest, click here.
(Photo credit: Bob Blanchard, Basketball Hall of Fame)