Editor’s Note: All photos by Scott Burkhalter, Provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- It hasn’t taken Josiah Johnson long to make his mark at UMHB. Whether it was the fact that in his first ever collegiate start he faced a division one opponent in Texas State, the 30-point outburst against Hardin-Simmons two days later, or being named the ASC’s West Division Player of the Week, Johnson has emerged as an all-around leader for the Cru.
In the world of college basketball, timing is everything. Though coming into the season, Johnson, inexperienced at the college level, may not have been predicted by the average fan to be the team’s leading scorer by this point in the season, Carroll saw the talent from day one. No, not day one of his UMHB career. Not the day of his visit to Belton. Carroll knew Johnson would be something special coming out of high school, when he was the head coach at Sul Ross State. So it was not a surprise when Carroll found himself penciling in Johnson as the Cru’s starting point guard for the team’s season opener at Texas State in November.
“From day one, Josiah’s been the best player on the floor, there’s no question about it,” said Carroll when asked what prompted him to start Johnson early on this season. “He came in the first day of practice and was the best guy out there. He’s got that kind of talent. He works really hard at it. He’s confident in his abilities , but there’s something to back it up because he puts the work in for it.”
“Puts in the work” could be considered an understatement. Carroll said Johnson easily spends 40 hours a week in the gym, perfecting his craft, always looking towards reaching the next level of his training. That has benefited both Johnson and Cru, considering that after three games (not including exhibitions), he is the only player with over 20 points per game (24.7), more than six baskets per game (7.0), and more than 15 made free-throws (25).
But beyond the stats is a kid of strong character, molded by his small town roots and strong Christian faith.
Johnson’s story begins in Big Sandy, Texas, a town of just over 1,000 residents, built along the Sabine River in northeast Texas. It was there that he developed lightning quickness, ballhandling skills smooth as butter, and a dedication to perfection that drives his work ethic.
“[Growing up in Big Sandy] has some really good aspects to it,” said Johnson. “In a small town, there’s not a lot of things to do so the less trouble you can get it. For me, all I really had to do was go to the gym and go home, so I did that over and over and over again. You start to see progress happening, and you can appreciate it so when you get to the big scenes, you don’t really need it. You know exactly what you want to do.”
He not only starred on the basketball court for the Big Sandy High Wildcats but also was recruited to come out and play football for the UIL 2A school, something that developed his agility and footwork.
“I think it was huge,” said Johnson when asked how big of a role playing football had on his basketball skills. “I didn’t want to do it at first but my high school coaches always pushed me to play both sports to build camaraderie off the court with my team. We went to the weight room all the time to do things where I had to push my body differently, which ended up translating to the basketball court.”
Physical traits aside, what separates Johnson is his natural ability to lead, both on and off the court, something he attributes to his time growing up in Big Sandy. In fact, when you watch Johnson in a game, he leads like veteran, never looking panicked, staying focused.
“It comes from my younger days, playing basketball,” recalls Johnson, “my coaches and teammates always put me in situations where I had to lead. It just comes naturally really.”
It does appear to come naturally for Johnson, a sophomore, but that does not mean being thrown into the fire without a whole lot of collegiate experience comes easy. In the season opener at Texas State, UMHB looked like a fish out of water, turning over the ball 10 times in the first half. That spurred Johnson to request a change in the offense at halftime.
“He got rattled in the first half,” said Carroll following the loss to Texas State. “He came into the locker room at halftime and asked to completely change the offense. We had to reinforce him, tell him to stay the course. He came out and had a really nice second half.”
Carroll’s assessment was spot-on, as Johnson played with more poise and confidence for the final 20 minutes, finishing with 17 points. But that was just the start of the week to come. In non-conference battles over the weekend with ASC foes Hardin-Simmons and McMurry, Johnson put up a total of 56 points, going 18-21 from the free throw line, and shot about 50 percent from the field in both games on his way to being named the ASC’s West Division Player of the Week.
“Being a leader, especially if things are not going the team’s way, you can try to talk to the coach, make adjustments anyway you can,” said Johnson on what helped him find his rhythm running the offense. “Things weren’t going our way [against Texas State], so we tried to change it up.”
Coming out of high school, Johnson signed with Southern Nazarene University, a division two school in Bethany, Oklahoma. It was a great program, but Johnson hardly saw the court as a freshman, and began to realize it was not the right fit. That’s when he crossed paths with UMHB and Carroll, the newly named head coach. But how the two crossed paths is a little more interesting. Carroll’s former assistant at McMurry, Justin Hales was actually the assistant coach at Big Sandy High, and the Wildcats’ head coach, Kerry Strong, is a good friend of the UMHB head coach. Through conversation and keeping up with their team, Carroll had heard of Johnson, and went even a step further. He tried to get Johnson to become a Sul Ross State Lobo. But before he could even talk with Johnson, Strong let Carroll know that Alpine, Texas, was just a little too far from home for Johnson’s liking. But, as Carroll puts it even if a high school recruit does not ultimately choose your program, “you want to keep tabs on him”, as you never know whose name might appear in the transfer portal. When Johnson’s name appeared on the list over the summer, Carroll knew he was the kind of kid his program needed.
“Anytime you recruit a kid, the caliber in Josiah and the type of person he is, you want to keep tabs on him because if you look at the transfer portal, there’s thousands of names in there,” said Carroll. “When I got the job here, and he made the decision to leave Southern Nazarene, it was just a natural pairing because we were not so far from home, in a place where he’d be happy and a program where he would flourish.”
“Southern Nazarene, it was a great school, great coaches, great teammates, it just wasn’t the perfect fit for me,” said Johnson when asked what brought him to Belton. “I learned a lot from that school. Over the summer UMHB was really on me, and Coach Carroll made a great impression on my visit. So that was what brought me here, and it turned out to be a pretty great fit.”
It certainly did. Johnson is one of those players that Carroll has pegged early on as a potential centerpiece for this program looking ahead into the future; four years in the future with the NCAA blanket waiver giving all division three athletes this school year an additional year of eligibility.
“I think we’ve seen that Josiah Johnson is going to be one of the best players in the league,” said Carroll. “We’ll have him four years. He introduced himself in a big way to the ASC last week [against Hardin-Simmons and McMurry].”
“[Josiah] is going to be in the conversation every time,” said Carroll when asked later about some players who have stood out to him. “He is such a special player.”
But basketball is not what makes Johnson complete. It is his faith in Christ that drives him, pushes him on. Johnson is clearly one of those people who lives out Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters….”
“It is huge,” said Johnson on the impact his faith has had on his career. “Being humble. You’re going to have some bad things come into your path, but I try to work hard, put my head down, do the right things, and everything else will play out.”
So far, everything has played out for the sophomore guard, though a long season still lies ahead. But Johnson is ready for the challenge. There’s no place he’d rather be than leading the Cru up the court.
“Josiah is going to be a really good player,” said Carroll. “He’s a really talented kid, he’s a nice kid, he’s a great Christian kid. He is the kind of guy that we want in our program and that our fans are going to love and root for. He’s going to grow into one of the better players in the league.”
When Johnson came to Belton on his visit, he asked Carroll, “Coach, if I come here, what do you want me to do?”
Carroll responded with a chuckle, “Get buckets Josiah.”
Johnson just smiled. He has done that, plus some, and does not show any signs of slowing down.
“He’s going to terrorize the ASC,” said Carroll. “He’s got the chance to break some records if he continues to progress like we think he will. It wouldn’t surprise me if you look up at the end of his career and he’s on the top of scoring lists at UMHB, in the ASC, and on All-American teams.”