Johnson brings a different dimension to WKU basketball

Freshman forward Justin Johnson (23) attempts to dunk the ball during the Hilltopper Hysteria scrimmage. 

Billy Rutledge

When describing freshman forward Justin Johnson, there’s one word that comes to mind.

Explosive.

At least that’s what his new coach thinks.

“You look at Justin Johnson, I know he’s a freshman, but he doesn’t play like a typical freshman,” Head Coach Ray Harper said at the team’s media day. “He is high energy. Anytime you average 18-19 rebounds a game in high school…you can’t teach that. He knows how to chase the ball. He chases it when it’s not in his area, and I’m excited about what he brings to the table.”

Johnson, a 6-foot 7-inch freshman forward from Hazard, will play his first college basketball game as a member of the Hilltoppers on Saturday at 4 p.m. against Austin Peay in Diddle Arena.

Johnson commences his tenure at WKU with an already lengthy résumé. After averaging 21.9 points and 17.6 rebounds in his senior year at Perry County High School, Johnson was named first team all-state by both the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Associated Press.

He played on the Kentucky All-Star team against the Indiana All-Star team in mid-June and finished his high school career with 1,519 rebounds, good for sixth-most in state history.

Johnson joins the Hilltoppers at an exciting time. WKU’s set to enter its first season in Conference USA, where competition will be increased. He also joins a team with two household names in their senior seasons: George Fant and T.J. Price.

Fant, who currently ranks 30th on the all-time WKU scoring list with 1,180 points, has found himself in a mentor roll this season with Johnson eager to learn.

“We’ve adapted well with the seniors,” Johnson said. “George has taken me under his wing because that’s the guy I battle against in practice every day. I’m always white and he’s always red.

“Going against him, he’s a preseason all-conference player. He’s a great guy to learn from and made me a lot better going against him every day. The competition level between me and him is high, but he is such a great guy to learn from, and I really appreciate him.”

Johnson is one of four freshmen to join WKU this season that will add a different dimension that the Hilltoppers haven’t had in the past: depth.

Johnson joins a frontcourt that currently contains Fant, junior Aleksej Rostov and sophomore Ben Lawson. WKU also added the services of freshman forward Rob Marberry and has redshirt junior forward Nigel Snipes, who’s logged minutes at the forward position.

“It can be a really deep team,” Fant said. “We have one of those teams this year where, if you don’t bring it in practice, your spot’s not guaranteed in the game. Coach Harper’s really big off who we can trust, and if you show him he can trust you in practice, he’ll trust you in the game.”

WKU has experienced problems with depth in the past. Rostov, senior guard Kevin Kaspar and graduated players Caden Dickerson and Brandon Harris all missed significant time last year due to injuries.

“You’re going to have the nicks, sprained ankles and those types of things, but you want to avoid the ones where guys are lost for extended periods of time,” Harper said. “If this team is able to do that and they all stay on the same page, I like this team. We’ve got a good chance to be a good basketball team.”

Shifting from high school to college brings with it many changes for an athlete and for Johnson, his is more physical than mental.

“I lost 32 pounds since I got here,” Johnson said. “I can play whenever I’m called upon to go in and play those minutes for as long as they need to be played. Being in the right shape and condition to be able to play those minutes is the biggest focus. It’s a big transition. I want to be in condition to play 40 minutes if I have to play 40 minutes.”

The three-star recruit will taste his first regular-season action Saturday against Austin Peay. At Hilltopper Hysteria last month, Johnson led the white team with 14 points and 13 rebounds, while also placing second in the dunk contest.

With his energy and explosiveness, Johnson has the ability to become a staple of the Hilltopper basketball program for years to come. According to fellow freshman Marberry, Johnson has more than enough tools to make that happen.

“He is possibly one of the most athletic players on our team,” Marberry said. “I’m a pretty gritty player who likes to get in there, get physical and get some boards and he’s just a freak athlete.”