The Post-Journal

Talented Beyond His Years

Remember when you were a little kid and you always wanted to play with the big boys on the street, but, because of your age, you didn’t exactly know how you’d fit in?

That was much the way Justin Johnson of Jamestown High School felt in November when he stepped on the court for a preseason basketball scrimmage against Nichols, a private school in Buffalo.
There he was staring at Bob Fitzgibbons, then a junior, who had since signed a national letter-of-intent to play at Wake Forest. At 6-foot-5 Johnson could almost look the 6-foot-7 Fitzgibbons in the eye. But that’s where the similarities appeared to end. While Fitzgibbons’ place on the always powerful Nichols team was secure, Johnson’s spot on the Red Raider varsity was hardly a certainty.

The way Jamestown coach Vere Lindquist had it figured, Johnson would play in the preseason scrimmages and maybe a few non-league games to see if he was ready for varsity competition. If not, he could hone his skills with the jayvees.

“I was mentally prepared more for that scrimmage than any other,” Johnson recalled. “(But) I wasn’t sure if I could play with those kids.”

He found out in a hurry that he could, scoring 22 points against one of Western New York’s traditional powerhouses.

“He had a great scrimmage,” Lindquist recalled Thursday night. “There was no doubt in our minds that he could play at this level.”

Johnson was just a 14-year-old freshman.

Now just a little more than a year later, Johnson shows no signs of letting up. After successfully making the transition as a freshman starter in 1990-91 – he averaged 11 points and eight rebounds per game – he has turned his play up even higher this season as a sophomore leading the Red Raiders in both scoring (19.5) and rebounding (about 12 boards per game) as they’ve raced to a 14-2 record.

Along the way, Johnson has scored 30 points three times, including a career high 34 against Fredonia in December. But his most impressive play has come in the last eight games when he has averaged a shade over 23 points per game. In three games last week, Johnson scored 71 points, grabbed 48 rebounds, shot 26 of 41 from the field and 19 of 22 from the foul line.

“He’s definitely stepping his game up,” Lindquist said. “He’s scoring more points, getting more rebounds and his free throw and field goal percentages are better.”

What makes Johnson, an honor student, so difficult to stop is his versatility. Not only can he dominate play inside, but he is also one of Jamestown’s best shooters and has been known to attempt a 3-point every now and then.

“You have to have all the people play together,” Johnson said. If (teammates) didn’t pick their games up, (defenses) would all sag in on me.”

West Seneca East tried that last Saturday, but the Trojans paid for it as Dean Stockwell poured in 19 points and Quentin Leeper added 13. For his part, Johnson, scored 20, including 10 in the fourth quarter, to put the game away despite the fact disciplinary action kept two Red Raider starters out of action.

“Along with Justin, Quentin (Leeper), James (Leeper), Dean (Stockwell) and Jason (Frye) have picked up their games,” said Lindquist, noting that Karrie Walker, Jeff Bloomquist, Chris Bradley and Brian Fiorello have also contributed. “I have to give them all the credit. I’m not doing anything different, haven’t come in with any gimmicks. The kids have picked their games up.”

But Johnson continues to climb the scoring ladder. In two seasons, he has amassed 560 points, which are good enough for 14th place on the Red Raiders’ all-time list. Barring an unforeseen event, Johnson is almost a shoo-in to become the school’s all-time leading scorer if he continues at his present pace. David Anderson is currently No 1 with 1,172 points.

Certainly you don’t know how much bigger he’s going to get,” Lindquist said of Johnson. “If he continues to improve, who knows how good he can become?”

The Red Raider opponents are fearing the same thing.

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