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With Stanley Johnson, Arizona again has its sights set on a national title run

Stanley Johnson Stanley Johnson (Sam Forencich)

You should know Stanley Johnson, the basketball player. Here is a window into Stanley Johnson, the basketball coach.

During his junior year at Mater Dei (Calif.) High School, Johnson served as an aid for coach Gary McKnight’s freshman physical education class. Four days a week, Johnson would put McKnight’s students through basketball drills. Although McKnight was not always watching over them, Johnson’s pupils did not slack off. They worked hard because, McKnight says, "It’s Stanley Johnson doing it.”

Anyone who has watched Johnson play this year is eagerly anticipating him doing it for one of the top teams in college basketball next season. In a few months, Johnson – a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward from Fullerton, Calif., considered a top five player in the class of 2014 -- will arrive at Arizona with outsize expectations. If Johnson's abilities match the hype, the Wildcats should be in the running for a national championship, despite losing star forward Aaron Gordon and first-team All-America guard Nick Johnson to the NBA.

Stanley Johnson may not be far behind them. He was taught the game from the time he was three by his mother, Karen Taylor, who played collegiately at Jackson State and professionally in Europe. He received his first scholarship offer in the summer of 2010, before his freshman year, from then-USC coach Kevin O’Neill. Johnson's star rose after he joined the Oakland Soldiers, one of the top AAU programs on the West Coast, and scored 15 points against a team featuring projected NBA lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis at the 2012 Peach Jam Tournament. Johnson was also named Most Outstanding Player at the 2013 Pangos All-American camp, which included some of the nation’s top prospects.

In four seasons at Mater Dei, Johnson played every position. He spent most of his freshman and sophomore seasons at power forward and center, his junior year at wing and his senior year at point guard. Changing positions so often was not disruptive. It made Johnson into a more complete player, with better shooting, passing and ball-handling skills, and he now ranks third in school history in points and rebounds. He also helped the Monarchs compile a 135-7 record and four state championships, becoming the first upper-division player in California to win four consecutive state titles. Last season Johnson led Mater Dei to a perfect 35-0 record while averaging a team-high 25 points, 8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

In 32 seasons with the Monarchs, McKnight has coached dozens of players who moved on to Division I programs and several who made the NBA, including former Arizona stars Reggie Geary and Miles Simon. McKnight believes Johnson is better than all of them.

“He’s the best,” McKnight says. “Not even a discussion. He’s the best.”

Johnson's dream growing up was to play for a blueblood – North Carolina or Kentucky, maybe. But as he researched the schools recruiting him and talked to coaches, he realized Arizona was the best fit. There is no perfect decision, Johnson says, but Arizona, which he chose over USC and Kentucky, is the “most perfect,” because of, among other reasons, his relationship with head coach Sean Miller and the Wildcats' style of play.

“I thought it was my playing style – to say the least,” Johnson says. “Everything they do offensively, defensively, just the way they run their program – I think I’ll be comfortable from day one.”

Johnson’s college decision, announced during a televised ceremony last November, did not attract the attention it deserved. The same day, center Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones revealed together that they would attend Duke, and power forward Cliff Alexander pledged to Kansas. Okafor, Jones and Alexander, all of whom are considered top 10 prospects, slipped on baseball caps bearing a logo of their future school (Alexander’s selection was controversial). Johnson flashed a smile and held up a pair of size-15 Jordan IIIs with Arizona's logo. The sneakers were not props; he has since worn them multiple times, including after an All-Star game in Brooklyn last month.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 8.04.13 AM Screengrab from ESPNU

Now Johnson works out at least five days a week, sometimes two or three times per day. His training comprises a mix of cardio, resistance work, plyometrics and shooting and dribbling drills. Given Johnson's size and muscle tone, it is something of a surprise to learn that he does not regularly lift weights. How, then, does he explain his ripped, linebacker-esque physique? A Southern cuisine staple introduced to Johnson at a young age by his parents didn't hurt.

"My mom and my dad are from Mississippi and Louisiana and I've been fed cornbread since I was two," Johnson says. “Still eating cornbread and it’s working for me.”

While Johnson's natural talents are immense, his ascendance might be best explained by his voracious work ethic. An example: The morning before the McDonald's All-American game in Chicago last month, Johnson participated in a team shootaround. He lingered afterward to put up shots and kept going until he had made 100, even though the lights had been turned off.

“He has this will, this indomitable will, where he wants to be the best," Miller says. "He wants to win, but he’s willing to put the time and effort in."

Johnson’s stock rose after impressive showings last month at the McDonald’s game and Jordan Brand Classic, another prestigious All-Star game, in which he scored 24 points and dished out three assists. In its latest set of rankings, Rivals pegged him the No. 3 player in the Class of 2014.

Johnson has rounded out his game, adding new skills and sharpening others, and developed into a devastating two-way threat. Offensively he can bull his way to the rim and back down defenders, and his explosive athleticism makes him a superb dunker. He is also an elite defender, with the requisite strength to bang with big men and the quickness to hold his own on the perimeter. Scouts often describe Johnson as one of the most NBA-ready prospects in his class, and he is listed by DraftExpress as a projected lottery pick in the 2015 draft.

Johnson is the lynchpin of a five-man recruiting class for Arizona that includes esteemed junior college transfer guard Kadeem Allen, power forward Craig Victor and point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, both top-60 recruits. The Wildcats' haul is third in the final edition of Rivals’ 2014 team rankings, behind those of Duke and Kentucky.

At Arizona, which is ranked fourth in SI.com's offseason power rankings, Johnson will likely play small forward or shooting guard – Miller says the positions are “very interchangeable” in the team's system – in a rotation that includes veteran point guard T.J. McConnell, shooting guard Gabe York, forwards Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and center Kaleb Tarczewski.

The Wildcats are coming off a season in which they spent most of the winter ranked No. 1 and came within a single possession of reaching the Final Four. With Johnson providing a multifaceted offensive game and the ability to defend several positions, he could help ensure that they are once again a serious national title threat.

“Nobody knows more than me that he’s going to be a real piece to our team’s success this next year,” Miller says.

Perhaps the only thing Johnson will not be doing next season is coaching.

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