Buzz Williams enjoys talking about the recruitment of his players, the deeply personal stories of each journey, the connections that are made between college and high school coaches a decade ago that one day lead to a high school or junior college player popping up on the Marquette University head coach’s radar.
Then, when it’s time to meet with that recruit and his family, one thing is always the same. Williams lays it all out. The information given to the student-athlete and his family are consistent. The expectations are clear.
JaJuan Johnson’s recruitment was no different.
Williams told the teenager from Memphis, Tenn., exactly what he could expect when he came to Milwaukee, exactly what he would be like as his coach, and what he would experience on the court.
And what was that, exactly?
"It’s not a little boy’s game," Johnson said with a smile. "It’s almost a grown man’s game right here."
During the summer, Williams asked the 6-foot, 5-inch, 185-pound guard if what he was going through was anything different than what he was told.
The answer was simple.
"I haven’t experienced that type of working before, so when I came in I was like ‘what are we doing coach?,’" Johnson said. "When I woke up, I’m like ‘this is college basketball.’ Some days I’d wake up and look at the wall like what am I getting myself into today?"
The smile never left his face as he talked, and if he did have any doubts about what he was doing, he never let it affect him on the practice court. After it all, he earned Williams’ praise after surviving his first offseason as a Golden Eagle.
"I don’t have to think about that long," Williams said before naming Johnson as his most impressive player of the offseason. "Freshman. Stud. Answered the bell every day. Put his hands on knees the least amount of time than anybody on our team. Had no idea what he was getting into. Showed up every day. That’s my kind of guy. Hands down. Easy. Number one."
Johnson is quick with a smile and has an easy way about him – senior Jamil Wilson said his sense of humor, his goofiness, rivals that of Davante Gardner. So does his placidity.
"The thing that’s shocked me the most is the composure of JaJuan," Wilson said. "He’s not rattled. Under pressure he’s the same guy and he tries to do the same thing every time. His composure has really shocked me."
The Golden Eagles have seen him grow a bit through the first five games of the season, even though he didn’t see the court against No. 10 Ohio State on Nov. 16.
Johnson saw 14 minutes in the season opener against Southern, missing all four of his shots. He then scored 12 points in just 17 minutes against Grambling State. He was on the court for 11 minutes against the University of New Hampshire, missing both shots he attempted.
Then came a contest in Tempe, Ariz., against undefeated Arizona State on Monday, and Williams tossed him into the fire for 25 minutes in a 79-77 loss. Johnson went 4 for 8 from the field, pulled down three rebounds and handed out three assists while committing just one turnover.
A player has to be doing the right things to earn trust that quickly from Williams and the coaching staff, and Wilson has seen Johnson do just that.
Wilson then ticked off the freshman’s attributes: "His work ethic, his mentality about everything, his every day habits, not really complaining about anything (and) just getting up and doing it regardless of what it is."
For Johnson’s part, it’s a two-way street. Williams has provided him something he’s never had, which in turn is leading him to go all-in for his coach.
"He’s encouraged me more than any coach than coach I’ve played (for)," he said. "It’s really fun playing for Buzz because I’ve never really been encouraged before so it really gives me a confidence booster."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.