It is not easy being a five star prospect out of high school and someone projected to be a early lottery pick at the next level.
It is that pressure to meet expectations which Arizona’s Stanley Johnson deals with an a daily basis and is a weight many probably would not be able to endure.
There is the feeling form some that winning Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12 is expected and if he had not, it would have been a let down. And when things were not going right for the freshman over the course of a season, people are quick to mention that almost before talking about the result of the team as a whole. A team that lost just three games all season.
A classic example of this is a game that Stanley mentioned on his own during Tuesday’s press conference leading up to the Pac-12 Tournament. Arizona’s huge win two weeks ago in Salt Lake City over Utah to clinch at least a share of the conference title at the time was paired with the fact that Johnson had been benched in the closing minutes of the game by Sean Miller. It was not his night from a shooting stand point and he struggled defensively. Johnson, who has experienced a lot in his young basketball playing career even prior to arriving in Tucson, now weeks later acknowledged that was a game that was different and the first time he had felt the intensity of what it really takes at this level.
“At Utah, after the game I was just like ‘that felt like a different game,'” said Johnson. “That game was like no other that I have felt before…It’s a whole different environment in college. Steaks are higher so nothing can really compare.”
It was Johnson’s first real introduction to March Madness. A realization that Coach Sean Miller has preached and his older veteran players look to provide knowledge of but at the end of the day, it is up to the player to realize it.
“Games like Utah, games like at ASU, games like at Oregon State, the games that we lost are the games that I had the most to learn from and the games that I value the most from this season because I wouldn’t be the player I am today and we wouldn’t be the team we are today,” Johnson explained.
On a few occasions this season, like in the Utah game as well as at Arizona State and during the Wildcats trip to the Washington schools, Sean Miller was very animated with Johnson on the sidelines during a timeout or break in action. It raised some eyebrows but for Johnson, it was never personal.
“He is going to coach everybody the same,” mentioned Johnson. “He is never going to come at a guy for personal reasons, it’s all for the betterment of you and the team. When you come from a situation like that, you have to respect what he’s saying. For me, when people start criticizing me, I take it as constructive criticism to be a better player. I like Coach Miller a lot and I know where he is coming from. He’s trying to make me a better player.”
Johnson is quick to state how much he has grown up this season with the Wildcats through the great times and though the constructive criticism he has received. He knew going in that college was not going to be easy and nothing was going to be given to him. Allowing himself to take a step back many times over the course of the year, trust the process and acknowledge opportunities to learn.
“Tremendously,” he mentioned when asked if he has seen the growth. “Both as a player and as a person. I think everyone here has done a tremendous job helping me out both on the court and off the court. And I am still learning as we keep going. I think on the court, the things that I would have done when I first got here have made a whole turnaround until now.”
“There are a billion things I’ve had to adjust to here,” Johnson added. “Of course the things you see on the court and the things in practice. It would take forever to go through all of them. It’s always a learning experience and I think from all the wrongs that I’ve done here, I think the guys here and Coach Miller have helped me make them rights…I never took it personal. It was never anything like these guys don’t like me. One of the main things when I wanted to come to Arizona was I wanted to be coached and I wanted to learn.”
All this being said and Johnson still managed to lead the team in both scoring and rebounding and at times has been the most dominant player on the floor for either team in a game. Freshman of the Year was expected but also well deserved in how he handled himself and allowed himself to be great but to also be a student. If he is being a sponge and still learning the way he states, it is scary to think what he can become.