COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A veteran of USA Basketball youth teams, incoming Arizona Wildcats wing Stanley Johnson showed up for U18 trials this week a new man.
Already known for a powerful 6-foot-6-inch, 225-pound body — despite saying he never lifts weights — Johnson showed up at the U.S. Olympic Training Center this week and weighed in at 243 pounds.
Eyes opened. Had he started lifting on his own? Did UA strength coach Chris Rounds get to him already? Or was he just eating a lot?
There must have been something tipping that scale, and, well, there was.
“That was with my backpack on,” Johnson said. “I’m about 237.”
No wonder. Johnson looked much the same this week physically, though he played smoother than ever. He was arguably the top player of the 15 named as qualifiers for the U18 team that will compete in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship next week.
But if the difference in Johnson this month isn’t obvious in his measurements, it is in the subtleties of his game. Not only has Johnson gained from a number of different experiences — playing for USA teams, the well-regarded Oakland Soldiers travel team and for powerhouse Mater Dei High School — he worked on his perimeter skills heavily in his final season of high school.
Mater Dei needed a point guard, and Johnson, already the most physically dominant player on the floor, took over. He dished to opponents and set up offenses as often as he drove inside.
UA coach Sean Miller noticed the difference.
“I think Stanley is a very underappreciated ballhandler and passer,” Miller said. “He’s played against every player you can possibly imagine, and one of the things that’s really developed is his ability to handle the ball and pass.
“For somebody of that size, it’s quite a difference. … He has one of those bodies not everyone has.”
The chance to watch and work with Johnson’s emerging talent this month is a bonus for Miller, who is an assistant coach on the U18 team that is preparing for the FIBA Americas U18 Championship starting Friday.
Not only will the two get to know each other on the court for the first time, after years of off-the-court conversations, but Miller also expects to get a better idea of what the Wildcats really have with Johnson.
Arizona is losing forward Aaron Gordon and guard Nick Johnson from its starting lineup of last season, but can use Johnson anywhere on the wing in what will likely be a key role right away.
Miller may have a better idea of where, exactly, to plug him in after the U18 experience.
“It will be beneficial to him and also for our team,” Miller said. “We’ll get to know what he does well. I would say the environment here, because it’s so competitive, you see what he’ll be able to do as a freshman at the college level, because this is very representative of that.”
The USA’s U18 team is so talented that it’s likely the daily practices will be tougher than the game competition once the tournament begins. But the tournament itself, which is a qualifier for the 2015 U19 World Championship, could offer some different challenges.
Previous experience in international basketball has shown Johnson that’s the case.
“The teams are less athletic, but they do good things,” Johnson said. “A lot of them are crafty with the ball. They make good passes. They guard pretty well. They’re a little more slower- paced.”
It’s the next of a busy stream of events for Johnson, who will arrive in Tucson next month.
Already, he has blitzed through a busy spring, leading Mater Dei to a California Open Division title, then going on to the McDonald’s All American Game, Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit.
Johnson said he kept practicing on his own right up to the U18 trials, too.
“I’ve been trying to work on the pick-and-roll, hitting open shots,” Johnson said. “I ran the offense last year, so I didn’t get to catch and shoot.”
The only thing Johnson didn’t do, of course, was lift weights.
That’s coming soon enough — no matter what Johnson weighs when he arrives at the UA next month.
“Coach Rounds?” Johnson said of the UA strength coach. “Whatever he thinks I need, I’ll do.”