SANTA ANA – Former NBA coach Mike Brown approached Stanley Johnson a few days ago and apologized to the Mater Dei forward. He had already done so once, but he wanted to reiterate his displeasure with how he reacted to one of the junior's recent performances.
Johnson had just collected 25 points and 21 rebounds against St. John Bosco of Bellflower when Brown excitedly hugged the junior forward and told him, "You played a great game."
"I thought about it and I went back to Stanley and said, 'I should have just walked up to you and said, good game,'" Brown recalled. "I see him every day in practice. It wasn't a great game by him; it's what he's capable of doing."
BEST EVER? Check out the Register's list of the top O.C. players from the past 50 years at the bottom of this story.
Praise has steadily grown for the 6-foot-7, 232-pound Johnson. The consensus 5-star prospect is ranked among the top 15 players in the nation for the Class of 2014 and has turned down several of the top college programs while trying to decide among the likes of Kentucky, Syracuse and UCLA.
After Johnson obliterated St. John Bosco recently for a second time in three weeks, scoring 31 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in roughly three quarters, Braves coach Derrick Taylor said Kyrie Irving was the only high school player he'd ever coached against that was on Johnson's level, placing Johnson ahead of John Wall and Kevin Durant.
Never mind that Johnson still has another full season remaining, as well as this postseason, which continues tonight when Mater Dei (28-1) plays host to Rancho Verde of Moreno Valley in the CIF-SS Division 1AA quarterfinals. The 16-year-old Johnson already has carved a place on Mater Dei's Mount Rushmore, alongside Tom Lewis, Miles Simon and Taylor King.
"I marvel at him," said Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, suggesting earlier this season that Johnson "might be the best we've ever had."
"There's very few people I can compare him to," McKnight said. "We've had a lot of great players, but they weren't powerful like him and so versatile."
Johnson is also building a strong case as Orange County's greatest prep basketball player, a conversation that includes Marina's Rich Branning and Cherokee Parks, and Troy's Mark Wulfemeyer.
"I don't think it's hyperbole to say he's going to go down as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — in Mater Dei history, and in Southern California and Orange County history," said Frank Burlison, a longtime local basketball observer and a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
Johnson said the high praise is a lot to live up to, but it motivates him to work harder. He rarely takes a day off from basketball, working on his game and his frame with two personal trainers and playing on year-around travel teams outside of his obligations to the Monarchs.
"It makes me hungry because I know I'm doing something right," Johnson said.
His mother, Karen Taylor, knew what she was doing when she first put Johnson in the gym at the age of 3. Taylor, a basketball coach and former player — she played professionally overseas and was enshrined into the hall of fame at Jackson State — made sure her son learned to dribble, determined to not let his size confine him to the post like it did with her.
Even now, Johnson said he works on his dribbling about as much as his shooting. It has served him well as he has evolved into a rare physical specimen, combining the strength and bulk of a power forward with the speed and agility of a shooting guard.
Heading into tonight, Johnson is averaging 18.6 points, eight rebounds and 2.2 steals, his vastly improved perimeter shot adding to an already deep offensive arsenal.
Defense is where Brown, who coached a physical wonder in LeBron James for five seasons while with the Cleveland Cavaliers, thinks Johnson can eventually earn his keep in the NBA. Johnson often takes on the opposing team's top perimeter player and has gotten the best of some Division I-bound guards this season, including Tustin's Nick Hornsby, Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas' Rashad Muhammad and St. John Bosco's Daniel Hamilton.
"His feet are tremendous in terms of staying in front of people," Brown said. "He's got long arms, he's got great anticipation. If he ever gets the desire to be relentless all the time he can be a top-notch defender on any level. The physical attributes are there. The know-how is there."
Mater Dei was undefeated and the top-ranked team in the nation by some publications heading into its game against St. Edward of Ohio in mid-January. Johnson said the team was feeling "invincible" at the time.
Johnson learned two lessons that weekend.
He arrived late to the airport the morning of the team flight, only to be delayed further by the woman checking his bags. She noticed him after having just read about Johnson scoring eight points in the second overtime of Mater Dei's two-point victory against JSerra less than 12 hours earlier.
"I was trying to go and she kept talking to me," Johnson said. "She asked for a picture. I told her I have to make a plane and she had her phone out. I took a picture. I was running up to the gate and the door was closing. I missed it by maybe 5 seconds."
Johnson caught a subsequent flight but not soon enough to practice with the team later that day, earning him a spot on the bench for the opening minutes of the game. Mater Dei still built a small halftime lead but came out cold in the third quarter and fell behind by double digits, then watched its opponent exploit the lack of a shot clock to preserve the victory.
It was only the sixth defeat of Johnson's high school career, which includes three Trinity League titles, consecutive Division 1 state titles and a Division 1AA section title.
"I can probably name every (loss) off the top of my head," said Johnson, proceeding to rattle off each school while pausing intermittently.
Mater Dei has won 21 section titles and nine state titles, but has yet to win both crowns in the same year in consecutive seasons. It's the type of accomplishment that could cement Johnson's status as the greatest Monarchs basketball player ever, as McKnight suggested. Johnson said his focus remains on the former much more than the latter.
"My goal is to not lose another high school game in my career," Johnson said. "My coach has been through a lot of good players, so to even mention me in that discussion is an honor. That's not really one of my goals. I like winning. It'd be better to be the winningest player to come out of here.
"When you win, things happen the right way for you."
For Johnson, it's all happening.
TOP O.C. PLAYERS FROM THE PAST 50 YEARS
• Miles Simon, Mater Dei (1991-94): He earned back-to-back CIF-SS Division 1 player-of-the-year honors in 1993-94.
• Taylor King, Mater Dei (2004-07): He is the county’s all-time scoring leader with 3,216 points, his 14,56 rebounds are third most in CIF-SS history and he is a two-time CIF player of the year.
• Tom Lewis, Mater Dei (1982-85): He boasts the second-best scoring average in county history (27.0) and his 1,175 rebounds are the fifth most.
• Mark Wulfemeyer, Troy (1971-74): He is the county’s all time leading per-game scorer (27.5) and was the CIF-SS 4A player of the year in ’74.
• Rich Branning, Marina (1973-76): The point guard averaged 27.4 points as a senior and led Marina to the 4-A title game as a junior.
• Cherokee Parks, Marina (1988-91): He was the CIF-SS Division 1 player of the year in 1991.
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