Every position on the basketball court brings its own set of responsibilities.
It’s the point guard’s job to protect the ball and score when the opportunity presents itself, but it’s of greater importance to get teammates involved and keep the offense from becoming stagnant.
Baylor has been blessed with some top-notch players who display all of those attributes at this important position, and Niya Johnson is putting herself in position to be considered among them.
Johnson leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and is tops in the Big 12 in assists per game, and her impeccable court vision allows her to teammates to get the ball in ideal positions to knock down shots.
“I call her the quiet assassin,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “At one point she led the country in assists. From the time she stepped on the floor with us, she (has shown) a knack and an instinct on where to deliver the ball. She sees the floor well. She is a true point guard who wants to distribute the ball before she will shoot the ball.”
Johnson and the ninth-ranked Lady Bears, fresh off of their fourth straight Big 12 regular season title, will go for a matching fourth consecutive conference tournament crown. They enter with the top seed and will have a first-round bye when the tournament begins Friday and begin play at 1:30 p.m. at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
Johnson was part of the Lady Bears’ regular season and conference championships as a freshman last season, but she admits the title Baylor won this year is sweeter because they weren’t picked to win the league and she contributed more to the team’s success this time.
“We all knew the type team we were going to have,” Johnson said. “We just played as hard as we could, and if felt good to prove people wrong, even though we lost a lot of people, we were still able to win the Big 12 championship.”
Out of necessity, Baylor changed its style of play this season.
The Lady Bears were a post-dominated team over the past few seasons, with Brittney Griner as the focal point of their offensive efforts. Griner was joined by talented frontcourt running mates in Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope, so a slow-down game with a ton of touches in the post made sense.
That wasn’t going to work this year, not when the only known commodity Mulkey had before the season was guard Odyssey Sims. Baylor was going to have to have a more free-flowing game, one that seized every opportunity to get out in transition.
Sims was the point guard the past three seasons, but with the makeup of this year’s team, she needed to be able to play off the ball more. Johnson’s ability to take over at the point was going to determine the success of that experiment, and she’s handled that spot with aplomb.
“When she gets the ball, she pushes it up the floor very quick and gives me a great opportunity to run the wing, spot up in transition,” Sims said. “The past three years we haven’t really had the opportunity to shoot transition 3s, so I take advantage of it when it’s there. But it just makes everything flow a lot better. I’m fast, Niya’s fast, when (freshman forward Nina Davis) runs, we look great as a team overall just having Niya out there. She’s only a sophomore, but she has outstanding court vision. So that’s a positive.”
Johnson came to Baylor with high expectations.
A 2012 McDonald’s All-American, Johnson was a two-time Florida state champion with Gainesville’s P.K. Yonge High School.
She scored 40-plus points twice in her high school carer, including a 49-point game, but she didn’t come to Baylor with the idea that she’d be the focal point of the offense.
“I didn’t expect to score more (than I have in college) because the talent wasn’t there in high school,” Johnson said. “It was much easier, but now everybody’s good, everybody plays defense hard. You have to play team ball, and I’m just trying to contribute.”
And there’s no mistaking her contributions.
Johnson dishes out 6.5 assists per game, and she has a stellar 3.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. Her 196 total assists are second on Baylor’s single-season list, trailing only Sheila Lambert’s 216 in 2001-02, and she has improved as a defender while grabbing 3.7 rebounds per game.
“That just tells you how good she is,” Mulkey said. “When you play on this particular team where the guards are dominant and the ball is in their hand, and you can still lead the country in assist-to-turnover, that tells you how well she sees the floor. That tells you how well she takes care of the basketball.”
Under Mulkey’s orders, Johnson is looking for her shot more. She averages only 4.5 points per game and has a career high of 10, a mark she has hit twice, and has become a threat with the midrange jump shot.
In Tuesday’s regular season finale against Iowa State, Johnson was in with an outside shot at a triple-double before finishing with seven points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
But the most important number — or letter — she had was ‘W,’ as in the Lady Bears got the win to clinch the championship. And Johnson hopes its not her team’s last crown of the season.
“That was one of our main goals, winning the Big 12 and being able to stay focused and win in the NCAAs,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get to the Final Four and win a national championship, and we’re just taking it one step at a time and one game at a time.”