Jerry Johnson was named MAAC Rookie of the Year and is a two-time All-League performer.

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This article originally appeared in Basketball Times. CLICK HERE to get your subscription to BT.



When Jerry Johnson first stepped onto the campus at Rider University, head coach Don Harnum wasn’t exactly sure what he had. Two weeks into practice it was clear that he had something special. Looking back four years later it’s hard to believe that the kid from Lancaster, PA had just one scholarship offer.

Johnson’s career at Rider hasn’t been dotted with championships and national headlines, but his impact on the program and community has left a lasting impression. It’s a void that will not easily be filled.

“We always knew he was a talent,” says Harnum. “But it’s a credit to him that he became the player he did. More importantly he’s a great kid. It’s easy to coach when you have a kid like Jerry Johnson.”

Statistically, Johnson improved in each of his four seasons in Lawrenceville, NJ. Beyond the stats, Johnson matured as a leader. He came to Rider as a scoring guard, but openly accepted the idea of changing his role to that of lead guard.

After a freshman campaign that earned him MAAC Rookie of the Year honors, Harnum asked Johnson to move to the point guard spot. It was a difficult transition for a player that had the green light in his first season. But convincing Johnson that less was more proved to be an easy sell.

“There were times when he really struggled with the move,” says Harnum. “But he wasn’t one of those kids that looked for excuses. He would always look for help. He was always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. He really committed himself to taking on any challenge we put in front of him.”

Johnson has made a career of being a basketball cliché. Always working harder than everyone else and simply refusing to acknowledge that there was something he could not do. On the court he might be the epitome of a self-made player, but off the court Johnson is anything but a cliché. It was Johnson the person that prompted Harnum to offer him a scholarship.

“We liked him as a player, but his SAT scores were not good,” Harnum says. “But we couldn’t find a person that didn’t rave about Jerry as a person. He is one of those unique kids that is mature beyond his years. He has a presence.”

As a senior at McCaskey high, Johnson’s team scored a one-sided win over rival Hempfield. Rather than revel in victory, after the game Johnson asked if he could address the Hempfield squad. He told the team, made up predominately of sophomores and freshmen, that they had a very bright future and that their best days lie ahead.

The same was true for Johnson.

Despite some doubts that Johnson would not score well on the SATs, Harnum had already made the decision to sign him. Now in his eighth year as the Rider coach, Harnum, has only taken one Prop 48 and he was ready to go that route again with Johnson.

The one concern was the financial responsibilities attached to sitting out that first year. Unknown to Johnson until just recently was the fact that his high school coach, Steve Powell, had made arrangements to assist Johnson with the financial commitment. But Powell, who owns a Steel Mill, didn’t want Johnson to know that he had a fall back plan. He didn’t want him to be any less motivated in making the grade.

Making the grade was a challenge for Johnson, but a bigger challenge awaited him. Following an eye-popping freshman season, Harnum told the reigning Rookie of the Year that the summer, before his sophomore season, would be the toughest of his basketball career.

“He told me that, but I didn’t believe him,” laughs Johnson. “But I soon found out that he was right. It wasn’t just about learning a new role. He wanted me to understand that I had to work harder than I had ever worked before.”

The hellish summer paid dividends as Johnson upped his scoring average to 18 points a game, but while the points went up, the shooting percentage dropped. After connecting on 40% from the field as a freshman, his shooting percentage dropped to 36.5%.

Many thought it was simply a case of a sophomore slump, but the fact was the Johnson was a marked man. First team All-MAAC performer Mario Porter had graduated and the weight fell on Johnson to produce more. The stat-line told one story, but it was evident that Johnson had in fact raised his game.

“When you are freshman of the year the expectations become so great,” says Harnum. “People expect you to be twice as good. That’s just not realistic. We lost some key players to graduation and Jerry assumed a bigger role. As a freshman anything you do is gravy. People always say, ‘wow he’s doing that and he’s only a freshman.’ The expectations are so great.”

Following another hard off-season conditioning program, Johnson put up big numbers as a junior. He scored nearly 100 points more than either of his first two seasons, upped his rebounding total by nearly 40% saw a dramatic jump in his assist total (121). The pure scorer had become a complete player.

“As a freshman my responsibility was to put the ball in the basket,” says Johnson. “Each year that changed a little bit. Getting everyone more involved made us better as a team.”

Unlike a lot of former Rookie of the Year performers, Johnson made the transition with a smile on his face. He wasn’t a one-man show anymore, but the team was winning and that is all that was important.

“He is so coachable,” says Harnum. “It can be difficult to change the mindset of a kid that is accustom to scoring all the time. Not only did he accept it. He embraced it. Kids like that are hard to find.”

Watching Johnson mature as a player has been rewarding for Harnum, but his maturing process has been different than most. The word “kid” simply doesn’t apply here. Johnson has always carried himself like a young adult.

And after all the accolades and all the attention, little has changed.

“I am not even thinking about the NBA or anything like that,” says Johnson. “I have a responsibility and that is all I am thinking about.”

Johnson the player, Johnson the leader and Johnson the father. It’s very difficult to distinguish one from the other. But it’s easy to see that being a dad to his one-year old daughter, Jeriyah and soon a husband to his fiancé, Bianca, supersede all.

And that is what makes him special.


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