PORTSMOUTH — Low-post players with great length and the ability to hit jump shots from 15-feet out seem to be more prioritized by the week.
For Justin Johnson, his height and skills — but most importantly his willingness to not give up — allowed him to get the opportunity he so desired.
A second-team all-MSC honoree this past season on arguably the most talented collection of men’s basketball talent in school history, Shawnee State’s Johnson added the term ‘professional basketball player’ to his resume.
The 6-10 post player will play for BC Yambol in Yambol, Bulgaria, and will spend his first professional season in Bulgaria’s version of the National Basketball League.
For Johnson, the opportunity to pursue such a dream is an incredible feeling.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “It’s just another testament to how God continues to grant me favor undeservingly.”
Johnson, the grandson of defensive tackle and three-time NFL Pro Bowler Walter Johnson, and younger brother of Akron center Isaiah Johnson, the 2017 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, always had the bloodlines to do big things.
At Fairfield High School in Cincinnati, Johnson was already listed as a 6-7, 180-pound forward by his sophomore season. During his junior year, Johnson added another inch to go along with 20 pounds of muscle to his budding frame.
However, Johnson’s game really took off after transferring from Cincinnati Fairfield to Shaker Heights.
Following his sophomore and junior seasons, where Johnson averaged 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game on 51.9 percent shooting and 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds on 54.5 percent shooting, Johnson’s game truly blossomed at Shaker Heights alongside West Virginia-bound Esa Ahmad. He was named Division I Special Mention All-Northeast District as a senior after an impressive season that included a 14-point outing against national powerhouse St. Benedict’s (N.J.) at the LeBron James Classic in Akron.
“Shaker Heights holds a very special place in my development, both as a man and as a basketball player,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what to expect from the team or how to even carry myself alongside a highly-ranked player (in Ahmad). I’m fortunate that they already had a foundation set by great organization and coaching tactics.”
For his development as a high school player, Johnson credits both Fairfield and Shaker Heights — who won 20 games apiece in Johnson’s junior and senior seasons — as environments that motivated him to become a better player.
“I talk to the former players all of the time about this at both Fairfield and Shaker Heights,” Johnson said. “They really give you that college feel before you even get to experience it at the next level because of how big the arena is. The students and families and the energy that they bring to each game is insane. It made transitioning to high school way easier.”
His play at Shaker Heights resulted in a next-level opportunity with NCAA Division II Urbana, where Johnson, in his freshman season, averaged 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game while serving as one of only three players to appear in each of the Blue Knights’ 28 games.
However, Johnson wanted more. When he decided to make the decision to transfer, a friend — and former Urbana assistant Michael Hunter — wanted to bring Johnson with him to SSU.
“He was always a stand-up guy,” Johnson said. “He came to me with his plans to get better, which included me. That was more than enough for me.”
From the start of his Shawnee State career as a redshirt sophomore, Johnson, with his low-post positional flexibility at 6-10 and his ability to stretch the floor to the far high post and short corners, made an immediate impact.
In his first two seasons at Shawnee State, Johnson appeared in 57 games and started in 42 of those affairs, and, after averaging 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, made a big leap to 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting — all while appearing in all 30 of the team’s games as a junior.
Johnson’s senior season proved to be his best one yet.
With SSU gaining key additions on the perimeter in Kyree Elder, Jakiel Wells, and Dakota Prichard, in addition to returning Johnson, shot-blocking maestro E.J. Onu and Selby Hind-Wills from the year prior, the Bears went from a good defensive unit during the 2018-19 campaign to elite one a year later.
Johnson’s and Onu’s size down low, along with the defensive and positional versatility of the entire group as a whole, allowed Shawnee State to lead the nation in blocks per game (7.1), total blocks (227), and defensive field goal percentage (35 percent), finish second in rebounding margin (plus-12.1) and rebounds per game (44.9), and fourth in defensive rebounds per game (31.7) and scoring defense (64.1).
Those numbers allowed Shawnee State to defeat Campbellsville three times during the season — something that had never been done before in school history — sweep the season series against Cumberland (Tenn.), Life (Ga.), and Pikeville, and defeat Lindsey Wilson in Columbia, Ky. en route to a strong 21-11 overall record in arguably the best NAIA conference in the country.
“This team will be one that I will always remember,” Johnson said. “I like how we all had our own separate goals in mind. We were able to come together to accomplish those goals, both individually and as a unit. I can honestly say that the entire experience was everything that I needed it to be for me, and where I was at the moment in my life. I had a lot of growing to do when I got there, and I was able to do that or at least start the process of growth in (DeLano Thomas) and his staff.”
Through the struggles of transforming SSU’s group into a feared opponent on a night-in and night-out basis, Johnson enjoyed the grind with his teammates and coaches.
“It’s definitely something special,” Johnson said. “I loved every moment of it, both the ups and the downs. It was one of the most challenging things that I have done yet, which enabled me to learn a lot and grow. Shoutout to everyone who made that journey what it was. I needed every last person involved.”
Now, he’ll pursue the game that he loves — for a living — as a member of BC Yambol’s starting five in the Bulgarian Basketball League.
That’s simply because he bought into the team concept, and trusted in his teammates just like they learned to trust his own efforts.
“It gives me the confidence to try to go after other things I’m equally as passionate about to achieve things others view as impossible,” Johnson said. “I give a lot of credit to the program at Shawnee State and the City of Portsmouth. You really have to make good decisions. One bad move, and it could all be over. It was a very humbling experience.”
For more information on SSU Bears Athletics, visit www.ssubears.com or visit the Twitter and Facebook pages at https://twitter.com/SSUBears and https://www.facebook.com/SSUBears. For more information on how to join the SSU Bear Club or for sponsorship of specific SSU players or events, visit https://givetossu.com/bear-club and https://givetossu.com/sponsorthebears.