Rock Chalk Weekly: Sooner Rather Than Later
Written by Kyle Charles, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Most Division I freshman basketball players arrive on campus knowing that the majority of their first season will be spent on the bench, observing and learning from the older players, waiting for their time to shine. This especially holds true for post players in the Big 12, a conference loaded with talented bigs. Tyler Johnson landed on campus with a different goal in mind: to make an impact immediately. With toughness and perseverance, Johnson is working her way into the perfect role to do just that.
Johnson is arguably Kansas’ most-efficient scorer this season. She attempts less than four shots per game, but is shooting a team-best 53.9 percent from the field. Johnson’s offensive consistency has grabbed the attention of the Kansas coaching staff.
Head coach Brandon Schneider is becoming more and more confident in the freshman forward, as evidenced by how he discussed Johnson’s play with the media following her performance against Oklahoma State on Jan. 24. After shooting 4-of-6 from the field to set a new career high with nine points, Schneider spoke on her improvement in his postgame press conference.
“She’s made a lot of progress,” Schneider said. “She’s very intelligent. She’s a player that wants to get better and is really, of our front line players, the most aggressive to come in and get extra work with coaches.”
The extra work is paying off; Johnson’s minutes have practically doubled, from just over 12 minutes per game through the non-conference slate to averaging nearly 20 minutes per game through the first 10 Big 12 contests. Meredith Burkhall of Iowa State is the only freshman post player to average more minutes per game in conference play.
So how does a true freshman, undersized for her position, wind up playing important minutes in the stacked Big 12? Well, having her father, and mentor of the game, by her side throughout her career doesn’t hurt. And David knows firsthand about the toughness that Big 12 basketball demands.
If you look closely, you notice that Johnson isn’t always looking to the bench for advice. Sitting across the court from the Kansas bench are Johnson’s parents, David and Sally. Both are transitioning into a less familiar role as fans seated on the bleachers in Allen Fieldhouse. Sally, an alumna of KU, is no longer just cheering on her school’s team; she’s cheering for her daughter, representing the Crimson and Blue. Cheering for the home team in Allen Fieldhouse is a greater adjustment for David, who played basketball for the Oklahoma Sooners from 1983-87.
It might be difficult for some Jayhawk fans to recall a time when the Kansas men’s basketball team wasn’t winning conference titles season after season. For perspective, there are currently fifth graders who weren’t alive to witness the last time Kansas didn’t claim at least a share of the Big 12 title. Despite growing up in Kansas during the Decade of Dominance, Johnson cheered on the Sooners as a child. She admits that it wasn’t because she liked the team, she just watched her dad root for them and wanted to be exactly like him.
A self-proclaimed “Sooner for Life” after suiting up in a darker shade of red in his four seasons at Oklahoma, Johnson helped his team win back-to-back conference titles in 1984 and 1985. David remembers what it’s like to feel the fans of Allen Fieldhouse rooting against him, and those memories don’t make it easy to put on a Kansas t-shirt and cheer on the Jayhawks.
“That was a big rivalry when I was at Oklahoma,” David said. “I told her stories about the Kansas fans, but it’s great. Kansas is her fit, and for four years, I’m a Jayhawk.”
While wearing KU gear remains out of the question for David, Johnson has found a compromise with her dad for the time being. She purchased a camouflage hat with ‘Kansas’ inscribed across the front for him to wear. The green and black coloring is a tolerable substitute, allowing David to support his daughter while staying true to his alma mater with the passion that makes college sports what it is – special.
Johnson playing for the Jayhawks is a fact that she and her dad both describe as “surreal.” The skills David developed at Oklahoma and instilled in his daughter helped Johnson become the player she is today. When asked where she learned the most about the game, the answer is easy.
“I got more of my game from messing around in the driveway,” Johnson said. “He used to have me out there until 10 at night. We would always play H-O-R-S-E or one-on-one, and to this day I think I’ve only beat him at H-O-R-S-E once. He holds it over my head too. That’s where all the skill work and fundamentals came in.”
David coached at Wyandotte High School and then at Schlagle High School while Johnson was growing up. David recalls his daughter never missing a practice, always on the sideline, observing and holding a basketball. On occasion, he would even look for input from her.
“He’d ask me for advice, somewhat jokingly, because I was nine or 10 years old at the time, so I’d give my opinion,” Johnson said. “It was really cool.”
In sixth grade, David coached Johnson on an organized team for the first time. David gave his daughter the freedom to play other positions on the court, an experience Johnson recalls fondly.
“I remember I got to play point guard,” Johnson said. “It was the most fun time of my life.”
When Johnson reached high school, her dad was once again on the bench as the assistant coach for her Leavenworth squad. Her love for basketball strengthened, and her game followed suit.
Johnson also kept basketball fresh by staying involved in other sports. While most athletes destined to play at the Division I level start specializing in their sport by high school, Johnson geared up for basketball season by playing volleyball each fall. Her dual-sport participation left some questioning David on whether or not it was best for her basketball future.
“A lot of people would say I should just let her focus on basketball, but when you’re growing up, you have other aspirations,” David said. “She loved volleyball so I wasn’t going to take that away from her. It’s her decision and her life – I just try to be there to guide her.”
That guidance is still paying out dividends, as aspects of Johnson’s volleyball game have translated onto the basketball court.
“I think blocking shots is really something from her volleyball experience that shows on the court,” David stated. “In high school, she led the team in blocked shots, typically, and I think that’s an attribute that came from her volleyball experience.”
While Johnson loved volleyball, she and her parents both knew her future was in the game her father played and taught her.
“Basketball was opening doors for me,” Johnson said.
Those doors proved to be something closer to flood gates once schools began to pursue Johnson’s commitment.
“The first night recruiting started, I got 40 emails right after midnight and I was overwhelmed,” Johnson recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do’ so my dad just sat me down and let me know what was going to happen. He went through the same thing, so he told me what would happen, how I needed to react to things and what to do with the letters.”
Just as he encouraged Johnson’s volleyball involvement and did not intervene, David knew that the best school for her was the school she thought was best for herself.
“You’re going to feel it,” David told his daughter. “No one is going to tell you. You just have to let your heart guide you to where you want to be. Where you feel the most comfortable is where you want to spend the next four years.'”
The attention and pressure of being recruited can be overwhelming, especially for a 17-year-old student still focused on her final year of high school. Johnson was coming off a stellar junior season, leading her Leavenworth High School team to a Class 5A State Championship and looking to repeat in her final season. So when the time came to commit to a school, the decision to come to the University of Kansas surprised those around her, including her parents.
“In the beginning, at the house we had Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Nebraska and Kansas State – those were her main focus,” David said. “She was really looking at those. We had a lot of Big Ten schools looking at her also.”
While those programs captured Johnson’s initial interest, she continued the recruiting process searching for specific qualities each school and team had to offer. What Johnson looked for most was a connection to the coaches and players.
“The school is a big deal because it’s where I would be getting my education, but the people I was going to be around 90 percent of the time were the players and coaches,” Johnson explained. “I wanted to make sure I had a good relationship with them, and at KU I loved the team. They’re awesome, and that really influenced my choice of coming here.”
Johnson’s choice thrilled the Jayhawks in her family. Sally was delighted to keep her daughter close to home, but Johnson said that her grandfather, Paul Heitzman, was probably more excited than anyone.
“He loves KU basketball, so he wanted me to go to KU so badly,” Johnson explained. “He never outright said it, but he would slip in little hints. He was almost in tears he was so happy when I came here.”
David and Sally now make the 45-minute drive to see every one of Johnson’s games in Allen Fieldhouse. The emotional support of her parents cheering her on is a great benefit of choosing Kansas, but her father’s guidance is a huge asset to her development as well.
“Even though I’m always focused on the coaching staff, I still always hear my dad,” Johnson said. “Throughout life he’s always been there so I can always pick his voice out in the crowd. When I hear him say something, it kind of locks me in. Even after the game, he gives me advice on what I could do better, what I did wrong; it really helps a lot.”
As a four-year starter with the Sooners, David experienced the learning curve of Big 12 basketball. Now, he shares that experience with his daughter to help her follow in his footsteps.
“I played post in college, so I experienced it and I know what she’s going through right now: growing pains, especially playing inside in the Big 12. That’s the toughest position to play and she’s undersized, so I tell her she has to use her quickness. She can’t get pinned behind the post. When we talk, I ask her, ‘Where do you want the ball? What do you want to do?’ That’s where other players want the ball also.”
Instructions like those are what Johnson hears from the sideline during home games, complimenting the directions coming from the Kansas bench.
Growing pains have tested Johnson and the Jayhawks all season, but everyone around her knows how high her ceiling is as she gains invaluable experience so early in her college career.
“She’s going to have struggles, but she will keep her head up, keep working hard and good things will happen,” David said. “I have confidence in Coach Brandon, that’s he’s going to get them where they need to be.”
Johnson grew up wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps, and reaching that level would be huge for the Kansas women’s basketball program. David still sits fourth all-time in games played for Oklahoma, eighth in rebounds and 18th in scoring. Johnson is playing tough, and continues to raise the bar with each game and each new challenge she faces. Considering the impact she is making this season and how much time she still has left in her Kansas career, it’s not difficult to foresee Johnson becoming a force in Big 12 basketball, just like her father.
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