Jaylen Johnson has official visits scheduled with Iowa State, Louisville and Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Sam Webb)
In a matter of months, Ypsilanti power forward Jaylen Johnson has risen from hidden gem status to become one of hottest commodities in the 2014 class. After helping propel the Phoenix to the state quarterfinals last spring, the 6-8, 200-pounder went on to deliver a series of impressive AAU and camp performances over the summer. The cumulative effect was a catapult in the rankings and on the respective recruiting boards of numerous high major programs across the country.
By his side for every step of the journey was his mother Janetta Johnson. A courtside fixture, she could frequently be heard shouting out words of encouragement. She also passed along helpful technical advice based on her experience as the nation’s leading shot blocker and team MVP at Wisconsin. In her son she sees a player capable of doing even more.
“He can handle the ball a lot better than I ever could,” Ms. Johnson said proudly. “I was a back-to-the-basket player. He is more of a front-to-the-basket player. The thing that really makes him special is his ability to see the floor. I had him on football for maybe two to three years and he was the quarterback. He can really throw the ball with accuracy and see people when no one else can. With basketball, he sees the floor just like that.”
It’s an aspect of the game that he takes great pride in. As a matter of fact, he finds just as much fulfillment in assisting on a basket as he does in scoring one himself.
“I like getting my team on,” said Jaylen. “If I’m eating then everybody’s going to eat.”
That approach to the game played a pivotal role in Ypsilanti’s success last year, but if the Phoenix are to go even farther in 2014, Coach Steve Brooks believes his star pupil will have to do things a bit differently.
“He’s totally unselfish, (but) I want him to be more selfish,” Brooks said. “He totally has bought into really wanting to win, but he has to understand a lot of times that he really does have to score the ball. I think that’s really where he’s improved.
“He’s a skilled four-man for us. He’s a decision maker in the press (and) he’s the ball reversal guy because he can feed into the post. He can also shoot it now.”
It’s that final attribute that has scouts and coaches all abuzz. Johnson’s ability to face-up his opponents and knock down jumpers or drive to the basket helped garner him a four-star rating by Fox Sports Next. Now the No. 20 power forward in the country, he also holds offers from Cincinnati, Arizona State, Florida State, Maryland, Louisville, Iowa State, Oregon and Michigan State. Though he currently claims no favorites, he did admit that the offer from the Spartans commanded a little extra attention.
“I’d been waiting for that offer – not particularly Michigan State, but an in-state offer because at first I was like, ‘I’m trying to work, and I’m not getting any looks in the state,” Johnson stated. “I was getting all the looks out of state, so when I got it I was excited. They’re finally seeing what I can do.”
So too is Michigan. The Wolverines had been monitoring his progress for well over a year, but their interest picked up significantly in recent weeks thanks to the strides he made on and off the floor.
“Traditionally you have to show Coach Beilein’s staff that (you) can also get it done in the classroom before they seriously pursue you,” Brooks explained. “They’ve always known he can play, (but) he has shown a lot of maturity in the classroom, so they’re starting to turn it up a little bit.”
As much pride as Brooks has taken in his Johnson’s improvement on the hardwood, he beams even more when speaking of the academic growth of youngster that just turned 17 earlier this month.
“What people don’t realize is he probably should really be a junior,” said Brooks. “As a freshman he was 13 turning 14. A lot of times you can’t grasp it socially. You’re trying to balance the two socially and academically, which is real common among young freshmen. He has shown great maturity in everything he’s done since (then) so we’re real pleased with that.”
Johnson’s mother is committed to helping her son find a program that is just as attentive to all aspects of his development. She was able to hold Michigan under the microscope during an unofficial visit a few weeks back and came away extremely impressed.
“I like Michigan,” Ms. Johnson said. “They’re in the Big Ten and you can get one of the best degrees. I have a Big Ten degree and I always recommend Big Ten degrees. As far as their style of play, they seem to have an open-floor style of play, so that’s good too.
“I’ve really got to dissect the program and the way they play (more), but I love Michigan. I’m from Michigan and any time I turn the TV on, if Wisconsin is not playing and Michigan is, I’m rooting for Michigan. It is just a matter if it is going to be a fit for Jay. (It’ll be about) where I feel that Jay is going to get the most development, the most growth, (and has) the people who are going to get on board with Jaylen’s dream, as well as him being an asset to the program.”
The coaching staff in Ann Arbor spent time detailing just how well the two sides might fit together, but the majority of the visit was about getting to know one another better.
“I like Beilein,” Ms. Johnson said. “I’ve seen him at games and things like that, but I’d never gotten a chance to meet him. I’ve met Bacari (Alexander) down through the years because he’s always frequented the gym. I like Beilein; I was kind of looking at his eyes when he was talking and was trying to see if he was an honest kind of guy. He was an honest guy. I’ve been some places and I really love the assistant (coach), but I did not like the head coach. Talking to Beilein and spending time with him, I like him. Is (Michigan) a good fit for Jay? I don’t know yet. We still got a lot more to do there, (but) it is possible.”
The next recruiting priority for the Johnsons will be hitting the road for official visits. Both Michigan and Michigan State will likely receive return visits to their campuses, but they probably will be unofficial.
“He wants to take all five of his official visits,” said Ms. Johnson. “A lot of the colleges don’t want him to do that, but he wants to take all five. Will we take an official visit right here in town? I don’t know. We’re right here -- it would just be nuts. Will that stop us from (picking Michigan) if that becomes one of his final colleges? I don’t think so.”
Thus far Johnson has three of his five official visits scheduled: Iowa State Sept. 13, Louisville Sept. 20 and Oregon Sept. 27.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.