Top Toppers target Justin Johnson shows he can play hurt

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 29, 2013 

His teammates with the Travelers Basketball club probably would have understood if Justin Johnson had knocked off early over the weekend.

The Perry Central star was fighting for a loose ball Sunday morning — the final day of the Hampton, Va., session of the Nike summer circuit — when an opponent inadvertently popped him in the face.

Johnson ended up on the trainer's table, completely without vision in one eye for about 5 minutes. As he sat, the Kentucky-based Travelers suffered their worst loss yet, a 31-point defeat to Team Penny out of Memphis.

The 6-foot-6 forward didn't want to go out like that.

Johnson returned to the court a couple hours later and scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds and led his team to an 89-67 victory over Team Texas Elite.

The win gave the Travelers a 5-4 record after two weeks of play — they were 2-18 last year — and sent the squad back to Kentucky on a high note.

Johnson was all smiles after the game, despite a nice-sized bruise on his cheek.

"It hurts. I haven't taken any pain medication for it," he said. "I got knocked one time in the first half and I felt it a little bit. I'm probably going to wake up with a black eye in the morning, but that's OK. We got the 'W.'"

If Johnson was hurting, he didn't show it.

The competition included Elijah Thomas — a 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward rated among the top 10 players in the class of 2015 — and Johnson went right at him every time.

"When Justin Johnson wants to be a warrior, he's as big as anyone else out there," Travelers Coach Andre Mahorn said. "They say he's undersized, but they don't realize how athletic he is and how much ability he has. ... He's explosive."

There were more than a dozen college coaches on the sidelines to see Johnson's performance. One of them was Western Kentucky assistant David Boyden, who was there for all five of the Travelers' games in Hampton.

Johnson — a class of 2014 recruit — has already visited WKU "six or seven times," and he'll head back to Bowling Green on Tuesday for another trip. He also lists offers from Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, Indiana State, Belmont, Lipscomb and Towson. Southern Miss has told him that they'll officially extend an offer when he comes to town for a visit.

And Johnson is hoping his impressive showing with the Travelers will lead to more scholarship opportunities in the coming weeks.

But Western is No. 1 at the moment, and the Hilltoppers might be tough to beat.

"That means a lot to me — showing up every game and showing us how much they want me," Johnson said. "Every time I talk to them and every time I've been there, I'm No. 1 on their recruit board. So it means a lot that they want me that much."

Johnson has told Western Kentucky's staff that he plans to take all five of his official visits before making a college decision, which is likely to come in the fall.

Scout.com analyst Evan Daniels says the hard-working power forward would be a good addition to the Hilltoppers. Daniels praised Johnson's knack for getting rebounds and said his athleticism is often overlooked.

"He's got a strong body and he's a better athlete than you'd think from looking at him," he said. "He really throws his weight around and he really competes."

Daniels noted the success Western has had with similarly built players, specifically mentioning George Fant, who just wrapped up his sophomore season with the Toppers and averaged double-digit points and six-plus rebounds per game in each of his first two years.

Johnson could follow the same blueprint.

"Western's been all over him from the get go and they've made him a priority early," Daniels said. "They were at all of his games over the weekend, and I think Ray Harper really wants him in his class."

Johnson mentioned Harper's success — two NCAA Tournament appearances in his first two seasons — and Western's upcoming move to Conference USA as other reasons for his high interest in that program.

"Ever since Coach Harper's taken over there they just keep going up and up," he said. "The facilities are great, everything's great. It's not too far from home, but it's just about right."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216Twitter: @NextCatsBlog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com

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