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Arizona's Stanley Johnson guided by his mother on and off the court

Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson uses lessons from his mother, a former professional basketball player, on the court

PORTLAND, Ore.—The last time Stanley Johnson and Karen Taylor played one-on-one, the 14-year-old 6’1” Johnson gave his mom a little shimmied crossover, which prompted a surprised reaction from the former Jackson State player.

“Ohhh, that’s how it’s going to be?” Taylor said, before using her 6’2” frame to elevate over her only child and drain a jump shot. She went onto win 7-6. They haven’t played since.

Four years after that game, and 31 years removed from her own playing career at Jackson State, Taylor still believes she could hang with her only child.  The shimmy-crossover may have become Johnson’s signature move—and now often ends with a thunderous dunk—but she’s not intimidated by it. “I could still shoot a jumper in his face, oh yeah,” Taylor said, referring to the Pac-12’s freshman of the year. Johnson, who has grown into a 6’7”, 245-pound forward and is projected as a Lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft, knows better than to sass his mother, or doubt her skills. After all, he says, she’s the reason he’s gotten to this point.

This week, Johnson and second-seeded Arizona will meet sixth-seeded Xavier in the semifinals of the West Regional. They’re hopeful that this weekend ends in a trip to the Final Four. And if the Wildcats (33-3) find their way to Indianapolis, it will be in part because of a freshman who oozes moxie, a rookie who plays without fear and was trained by the best basketball mind he knows.

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Arizona came agonizingly close to the Final Four last year, led to the Elite Eight by 6’3” slasher Nick Johnson, now a member of the Houston Rockets. Stanley Johnson, who boasts less than seven percent body fat, is an even bigger matchup problem, using superb athleticism and strength to dominate smaller defenders in the paint. Solid fundamentals and basketball smarts—plus what point guard T.J. McConnell describes as an underrated outside shooting touch—allow him to pull defenders to the perimeter and attack. He has a history of playing multiple positions. At powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., Johnson started as a center before moving to forward (sophomore year) then shooting guard (junior year) and finally, point guard (senior year). He thrived at every spot, Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said, because of his physical makeup. “He’s built like one of those statutes you see outside Cesar’s Palace,” McKnight said. “And what people forget is that he doesn’t turn 19 until May. He’s still a child.”

“When I first saw him I was like, ‘There’s no way that kid is a freshman,’” McConnell said. “He’s a genetic freak. I thought he might be the answer to us getting to a Final Four. Then I saw him play and yep, he’s definitely the answer. I mean, he’s basically unguardable.”

And for that, Johnson can thank his mom. Taylor and Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson Sr., both played a part in raising him, but Taylor said she had primary custody. She and Stanley Jr. spent their days in gyms across Fullerton, Calif., going through dribbling drills and practicing proper shooting technique. When Johnson was 5, Taylor created the So Cal Tigers AAU club, which he played on until he was 14. She told him when they walked through the gym door and hit the floor, she was Coach: “Don’t expect me to ‘Mommy’ you,’” she warned him. When he was a little bit older, she’d sit him in front of his teammates and pepper him with interview questions. Rehearsal with media was part of the job. She demonstrated how to speak in an eloquent, thoughtful fashion, displaying both humility and confidence. In practice, she pushed him past the limit for most kids, demanding as close to perfection as he could get. Always, he came back for more.

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“I was never an average player,” said Taylor, who played professionally overseas for almost five years after college and was inducted into the Jackson State Hall of Fame in 2009. “He has no choice. I made all the things happen in my life and I’ve always told him, ‘You’re going to do greater things in your life than me if you work at it.”

Then, she quipped: “He was there when I got inducted into the Hall of Fame. He knows my game had flash.”

McKnight said Johnson will train with anyone, anywhere, driven by a deep love of the game, not an obligation to Taylor. In high school he worked out before school, went through a team practice, then often headed to the Anaheim Sports Center—where he occasionally met up with a rehabbing Kobe Bryant—to get up extra shots. Still, though Johnson might not admit it, he’s constantly trying to one-up his mother. If she is impressed, he knows he’s doing something right. 

In Arizona’s Round of 64 NCAA tournament game, Johnson’s first March Madness experience, the freshman scored 22 points, grabbed five rebounds and two steals, and handed out two assists. The 93-72 win over Texas Southern set up a showdown with another standout newcomer, Ohio StateD'Angelo Russell, in the Round of 32. Slowing the hot-shooting Russell would be crucial for the Wildcats. Before meeting the Buckeyes, Johnson joked that during his recruitment Arizona coaches “didn’t say anything about no defense,” though it’s well known that Arizona considers itself a defensive powerhouse. He didn’t bother complaining to Mom about playing both ends of the floor. He knew she would have no sympathy.

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“She’s always saying, ‘Defense wins championships, and when they recruited you they said you were going to win championships,’” Johnson said. It’s part of playing in a winning program. He added proudly that while it took him time to understand helpside principles—and when gambling for a steal is appropriate—he picked up Arizona’ pack-line defense quicker than she anticipated.

But finding his role on the team this year has been difficult at times. Early in the season, Johnson felt himself pressing, trying to do too much. After four California state titles with Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, three gold medals with USA basketball and numerous high school All-American honors—“We’re used to winning, you know?” Taylor said—he rushed shots in practice and got beat off the dribble. Being guarded every day by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, considered one of the best lockdown defenders in the country, forced him to get creative and “put new stuff in my game.” He is 18 years old and still learning.

Against Ohio State, Johnson missed three consecutive shot attempts in one long first-half possession and, with the ball headed out of bounds, slammed it off an Ohio State defender to make sure the Wildcats got it back. It was both a smart basketball play and a sign of obvious frustration. Early in the second half, he stepped in front of a Buckeye pass and raced down the floor for an uncontested layup. But he lost it on the way up—Hollis-Jefferson cleaned up with a putback—then turned to the bench and held his arms out as if to say, “What the hell am I doing wrong?” He finished with four points on 1-for-12 shooting.

“This type of atmosphere, playing for a Sweet 16, you don't have to remind someone like Stanley that this is a big game, a game that in many regards we're all judged by,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said afterward. “His intent was very good.”

Miller viewed it as encouraging that the Wildcats won in “convincing fashion” over Ohio State, 73-58, without Johnson playing well. Now, with tournament experience, Miller thinks Johnson will be able to relax and lead the Wildcats where he intended to when he committed.

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Last March 29, when Arizona lost an overtime heartbreaker, 64-63, to Wisconsin in the regional finals, Johnson watched the last few possessions on his phone in the Mater Dei locker room. “Of course, as a young guy, you’re looking at it like, ‘I coulda made that bucket,’” Johnson said.

The Monarchs were about to play for their fourth consecutive title. After securing the trophy, Johnson returned to his phones (he has two cells) and found a message from Miller congratulating him on a stellar prep career. They traded messages about the upcoming McDonald’s All-American game and Arizona’s season-ending loss. Johnson told him he wanted to take the Wildcats back to that point, return to a regional final, get another shot at Wisconsin and see what happens. Maybe he could be the difference.

The script played out perfectly: The top-seeded Badgers have also advanced to Los Angeles, and if both win Thursday, they’ll meet for another Final Four trip on Saturday. Taylor, of course, will be in the stands. She expects to see her star pupil’s signature move at least once, confident it’ll lead to a big basket.

She remembers how tough it is to guard.