ORANGE, Calif. — Catching the ball three-quarters of the way down the court with only one defender around him, Stanley Johnson didn’t hesitate.
In a game against rival Orange Lutheran last week, the Arizona Wildcats signee from Mater Dei High School drove the ball powerfully inside and threw down a one-handed jam.
It was an exclamation point for yet another Mater Dei win, so electric that even the packed opposing gym erupted in excitement. The dunk gave Mater Dei a 60-46 lead and the unbeaten Monarchs went on to win 65-48.
Only it doesn’t often work like that anymore for Johnson. Not only is he heavily defended as the star on a team of stars, but he’s also, for now, the team’s point guard.
That’s right. At 6 feet 6 inches and about 225 pounds, he’s the point guard.
In high school.
“I’m out of position, so I’m trying to get people into the game,” Johnson said. “It’s something new for me and there’s a lot more to it than just getting going.”
Not only is Johnson trying to create for others, but he’s also often unable to create much for himself. When he can get out on the break, as he did late in the game against Orange Lutheran, Johnson will take it in.
But he says he’s also not going to push it when the opportunity isn’t there.
“There’s no point in me trying to stress myself out, trying to get to the rim every time,” Johnson said. “If I have an opportunity, I can go in and attack but other times I just pass the ball. You can’t be nonchalant and just go in the lane.
“I’ll push it in transition, push in early offense, push on the break, but anytime there’s five people back and they’re all looking at me?
“No way. No way. No way.”
It’s a balancing act Johnson is facing throughout his senior year for Mater Dei, 18-0 and the No. 2-ranked high school in the country according to MaxPreps.com.
He wants to be careful, wants to develop his perimeter skills, but also needs to use his power game.
“He’s not a true point guard but he handles the ball and he’s strong with it,” Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said. “I think it’s gone well. But sometimes he forgets he made his name for going inside and rebounding too.”
Arizona won’t need him at point guard next season, not with T.J. McConnell expected back and Parker Jackson-Cartwright coming in from Los Angeles Loyola High School. But the Wildcats may very well need both perimeter skills and help on the boards from Johnson, especially if they suffer several early departures in the spring.
Johnson recently told Slam Online that “there’s going to be a lot of guys leaving (Arizona) this year from a possible Final Four team,” so he expected UA coach Sean Miller would put a lot on his shoulders.
But first there’s some business to take care of.
Johnson said having signed with Arizona in November has allowed him to focus on Mater Dei’s season, but there’s also a lot to focus on.
Like his future team is doing this season in the NCAA, Mater Dei, which is in Santa Ana, Calif., is pushing for the top spot in high school basketball. It helps that the Monarchs are loaded, with three top 100 talents, including 2015 guard Rex Pflueger and 2016 forward M.J. Cage, who says he already has a UA scholarship offer.
But Johnson is the guy who is steering the way.
“Our goal is to win a national championship,” Johnson said. “We’ve all gotta do our part.”