Shadow Warrior

by January 15, 2014


Originally published in SLAM 175

by Ryan Jones / portraits by Atiba Jefferson

The buzz on the mid-November Friday in question centered on Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, arguably the top point guard and center in the 2014 recruiting class, who committed simultaneously to play their college ball at Duke. Cliff Alexander, the nation’s top power forward and Okafor’s former AAU teammate, was on the same ESPNU special to announce he was headed to Kansas. For three top-five players with a single degree of separation between them, it was hardly surprising that they drew most of the national attention.

Call it East Coast bias, lack of mystery about his destination, or the ability to look past the easy narrative, but the buzz around the other guy to commit that afternoon was relatively quiet. Stanley Johnson doesn’t seem to mind. A top-10 recruit who ranks as arguably the best small forward in the ’14 class, Johnson confirmed what most observers expected when he announced he was signing with Arizona. The latest star at SoCal prep power Mater Dei seems confident that he’ll be turning heads nationally soon enough.

At 6-7, 230, Johnson is the prototypical do-it-all wing, able to beat defenders with strength, length, athleticism and skill. That he’s making a temporary position change in his final high school season figures to make him even better at the next level—and beyond. “Coach has me playing point this year,” Johnson says. “I’m a 2-3, but this year we really don’t have a true point guard. It’s not like I’m running a set every time down, but it was something we needed, and I can do it, so coach just sort of threw me into the fire. I’m already seeing the game a different way, using my mind more, trying to make good decisions. I’m distributing a lot more, getting more steals. It’s definitely helping my game.”

It’s all the more reason for Arizona coach Sean Miller to be excited about his latest Cali-bred star. It’s a long shot that Johnson will have the chance to play alongside current Wildcat frosh Aaron Gordon, his former teammate with the Oakland Soldiers AAU squad; as Johnson says, “I’m not really expecting him to stay.” But just as Gordon is balling out in the shadows of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, Johnson knows he’s impressing the right people now—and expects to do the same in Tucson next season.

“Coach Miller is going to put me in position to do a lot of things next year, and I feel like I can make an impact right away,” Johnson says. “There’s going to be a lot of guys leaving this year from a possible Final Four team, and he’s going to put a lot on my shoulders. I feel like I can be the missing piece of the program my freshman year. But I’m not really worried about me myself, individually, being the best player in the country or anything. I figure if we’re winning, everybody gets love.”

Johnson speaks from experience. Playing at Mater Dei, a veritable factory for DI college players, he went for 26 and 12 last spring to lead his squad to its record 10th CIF state championship. The opponent? San Jose Archbishop Mitty, led by his friend Gordon. Now, having chosen U of A over finalists Kentucky and USC, Johnson is looking to stack another chip at the prep level before trying to match the achievement in college. Hyped or not, Arizona—and some NBA franchise before too long—figure to be getting a proven winner.