SILENT ASSASSIN: Sophomore PG Johnson Can Do More Than PassMarch 21, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
As part of the same AAU basketball program that produced the last two Gatorade Players of the Year in Florida, Niya Johnson got used to dishing off to Alexis Prince and Ieshia Small.
But the sophomore point guard from Gainesville, Fla., can credit her All-American teammates on that Essence Purple AAU team for assisting on her Baylor recruitment. She was headed to either Miami, Fla., or Florida State before Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock came to watch the other two.
"We played so well together, we talked about trying to stay together," Johnson said. "That's how it all worked out."
Sometimes, even in recruiting, it's better to be lucky than good.
While Prince has struggled with stress fractures in each of her first two seasons and Small is last in scoring among the four freshmen, Johnson has started all season and is first in the country in assist-turnover ratio at 3.84.
"I call her the quiet assassin," Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said of Johnson, who is averaging 5.1 points, 6.4 assists and 3.6 rebounds heading into Saturday's 5:30 p.m. first-round matchup in the NCAA tournament against Western Kentucky. "From the time she stepped on the floor for us, she's had a knack and an instinct on where to deliver the ball. She sees the floor so well."
Until Baylor's 2005 national championship, Johnson said she had never heard of the Lady Bears, the school or Waco, Texas.
"I was just sitting down watching TV, and remember seeing Sophia Young and coach Mulkey and thinking, 'This lady looks psycho,''' said Johnson, who was 11 years old at the time. Six years later, she was part of a highly touted recruiting class that included Prince and 6-5 sophomore post Kristina Higgins.
Johnson was thrown into the fire last year, starting four games when All-American Odyssey Sims was out with an injury. She had a then career-high 11 assists in a win over Rice and averaged 1.8 points and 2.8 assists.
"Just getting that experience last year of playing with Brittney Griner and that group of seniors, it was really fun and I learned a lot," Johnson said. "It was just getting used to a different type of speed and realizing that everybody's good."
In a win at eventual national champion UConn last year, Mulkey saw Johnson "really deliver the ball to players at the right time. And I thought, 'This kid is going to be good.'''
"As you think about the future of your program and the changes you're going to have to make offensively, I knew then I had to have both Niya and Odyssey on the floor together," Mulkey said. "She just directs traffic for you. She has a knack for pushing the ball up the floor, a knack for getting it to the right people, and giving them passes that they can do something with."
Maybe even more important than the game experience, Johnson went against Sims every day in practice. That will make you better or completely humble you.
"I remember in AAU, we played her team in the championship game of a tournament in New Orleans," Johnson said, "and she would steal the ball every time. She was just fierce. I was like, 'Man, this girl can play defense.' Last year was hard, but I appreciated it, because it only made me better."
Under constant duress from Sims' ball-hawking defense, Johnson also got even better at taking care of the ball. The 5-foot-8 sophomore guard leads the Big 12 and ranks 12th nationally with 6.4 assists per game, but has turned it over just 55 times in 33 games.
"That just tells you how good she is," Mulkey said. "When you play on this particular team, where the guards are dominant and the ball is in their hand, and you can still lead the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, it tells you how well she sees the floor. That tells you how well she takes care of the basketball."
And here's the thing that's scary - maybe this is the "quiet assassin" part that Mulkey was referring to - she can also score. Johnson twice scored 50 points in a single game for her high school team and averaged 19.9 points as a senior.
"You don't score 50 in high school if you can't score," Mulkey said.
West Virginia found out the hard way, when Johnson was a cool 5-of-8 from the floor and a perfect 9-of-9 from the line and scored a career-high 19 points in the Lady Bears' 74-71 win over the Mountaineers in the Big 12 tournament championship game. She had matched her previous high of 10 the day before in a semifinal win over Oklahoma State.
"I thought the difference for them was Johnson, to be honest with you," said West Virginia coach Mike Carey.
"Niya can do that," Mulkey said. "People are trying to figure out ways to defend you and defend Odyssey. And you've got to kind of pick your poison. Being the one that probably takes the fewest shots, they're going to challenge (Johnson). It's not the first time she's seen that. And I told her when she came to the bench, 'You have to keep going in there, and you've got to be confident and make those.' And she did."
Particularly playing at home for the first two games of the tournament, Johnson should be in her comfort zone, playing in front of the Lady Bear faithful.
"We love them, no matter what, and we just want to show how much we appreciate them," she said. "We're hoping to get to the Final Four and win the national championship."
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