NIU men’s basketball: Anthony Johnson seeks strong finish to career

By Steve Shonder

Anthony Johnson, men’s basketball redshirt senior guard, is on a quest to make up for lost time.

As a four-star recruit coming out of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Johnson had his pick of schools to choose from. Ultimately, he went with the Purdue Boilermakers, but after three years at Purdue he made the move to NIU.

“It’s been a smooth transition,” Johnson said. “A lot of my peers and the coaches surrounding me are cool people, and they’ve really made it easy for me. Coach Monty is a laid-back coach, and his offensive and defensive schemes aren’t that much different than any basketball coach in college.”

While this is Johnson’s first season playing for the Huskies, it isn’t his first year in DeKalb. Johnson was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA rules regarding transfers. He also spent his freshman year at Purdue as a redshirt.

“Any time you’re away from the game you love, that’s hard for anybody,” Johnson said. “That’s my second time doing that, so I was familiar with that. I knew I could end up losing a year or so. It was difficult for me, but I was just looking forward to the future, and it’s here now. We’ve got a lot of goals ahead of here.”

Moving back home

With the news that his grandmothers were diagnosed with breast cancer, Johnson decided he wanted to be closer to home. NIU, just an hour from home, proved to be the perfect location for him; just as importantly, Johnson liked what he saw from the program and thought it was a better fit for him.

Johnson applied for a hardship waiver to avoid losing another year of eligibility with the transfer, but the NCAA declined it.

“I know I didn’t get it because the NCAA has their reasons,” Johnson said. “For me to sit up here and say exactly what happened would be immature of me. They just didn’t feel I reach[ed] their requirements, and I respect their decision. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Losing the year was a worth it for Johnson, as his grandmothers — now cancer-free — are able to see him play frequently, and he can get home to see his family more often. One of his grandmothers has attended every home game this season.

Growing pains

While things have worked for Johnson, he isn’t without his regrets. While at Purdue, he played a role off the bench, only cracking the starting five 11 times in his career, but he thinks he could have made a bigger impact for the Boilermakers.

“I think that I had my chances to succeed, and I think I did at times, and sometimes I let myself down,” Johnson said. “I always put the blame on myself for anything that didn’t go the way I wanted it, but I don’t blame the program at all.”

The shift from Purdue to NIU has helped Johnson grow as a player and a person. He said he thinks whatever has happened to him always was within his control, and controlling what he can is what he’s trying to do in DeKalb.

“I think whether I’m at Purdue, here, or any other school, you have to make the most of your opportunities,” Johnson said. “I think that falls on the player. I got the same chances.”

Instant offense

The time away from the game has helped Johnson figure out how to play with the Huskies, but he also had to figure out how to fit in with the team so he’d be able to jump into the season with ease.

“That time that he was sitting out, he kind of got used to the guys, got a feel for how things are going to be when he started playing,” said sophomore Aaric Armstead. “I think he started to adapt his game.”

Johnson has been an offensive force, especially in the latest stretch of games. He hit a career-high in points scored, 23, on Feb. 21 against the Eastern Michigan Eagles. The addition of Johnson has given the Huskies a much-needed scoring threat next to Armstead and junior Travon Baker with former leading score junior Darrell Bowie limited due to a shoulder injury. Johnson is averaging 10.8 points per game.

“He’s tried to fit in with the team and find his niche, but he definitely gives us that scoring threat every possession down,” said head coach Mark Montgomery.

Finishing strong

The difference in size between the Big Ten and the MAC has been something Johnson, 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, has exploited this season. He was already capable of driving through contact to the hoop and unleashing a Derrick Rose-esque floater, but the lack of 7-footers around the conference has made him more confident taking the ball into the lane.

“Going against bigger, stronger guys, you learn different moves and how to finish,” Johnson said. “… Being able to finish with your left and right hand has really helped me. Taking those hits is a part of the game, and I’ve learned how to take contact and how to fall.”

Pairing up his hard-charging play with a team-first attitude has Johnson hopeful the Huskies will be able to get it going in the final three games of the season, take that momentum into the MAC Tournament and make sure he ends his career the way he wants.

“I think we can go out on a high note if we stick together,” Johnson said. “The games are always right there; it’s always won or lost in the last five minutes for us. I think if we find a way to dig down in those last five minutes we can take some goals that we’ve had since the beginning of the year.”