On a team with top-line front-court talent and a well-established backcourt, Lee’s Summit West junior Rich Johnson still has found a role for himself.
Johnson is a newcomer to the Titans this season, a 6-foot guard who moved back to Lee’s Summit after spending five years in Dallas. Other than 6-10 senior transfer Yor Anei, newcomers are a rarity on this Titans squad.
Despite the potential to take away minutes from West’s veteran players, Johnson has settled in well and is a newbie no more only eight games in the season. He’s become the Titans’ main scoring threat from outside as well as in transition, providing a complement to the interior dominance provided by Anei and 6-8 forward Christian Bishop.
When West beat Liberty 66-60 on Dec. 30 in the Cardinal Division championship during the William Jewell High School Holiday Classic at the Mabee Center in Liberty, Johnson poured in 28 points and provided a much-needed spark for the undefeated Titans (8-0).
“He was phenomenal,” West coach Michael Schieber said. “Transition scoring, hitting shots, inside out-and driving ... he’s been really, really good.”
The role seems a perfect fit for Johnson, who made the Cardinal Division all-star team along with Bishop.
He said it really wasn’t hard for him to fit in. The Titans’ up-tempo game suits Johnson fine, and so does having giants like Anei and Bishop under the basket.
“The bigs get a lot of attention because they’re big,” Johnson said. “That leaves me open for good shots.”
Schieber added, “I think Rich will tell you that works really well when you’ve got guys who can score in the post.”
Schieber also will tell you this works well when you have a team of unselfish players.
Johnson was accepted from the beginning by fellow guards Phillip Brooks and Mario Goodrich, two seniors who have been starters since they were freshmen. All three are starters this season, and neither one minds seeing Johnson getting more scoring opportunities.
“We don’t care who shoots the ball; we just want to win,” said Goodrich, who missed the first two tournament games to play in a high-school football all-star game in New Orleans. “We brought him into the family, so now he’s part of the family.”
The Holiday Classic didn’t start well for Johnson, who went 1 for 9 from the field and only scored two points during West’s 60-44 victory against Summit Christian Academy in the first round.
He followed that up with a 26-point night during a 64-43 win versus Raytown in the semifinals. He scored eight points in transition during a 10-0 run that put the Titans up by double figures in the second quarter and led another spurt that pushed the lead to 14 going into the fourth quarter.
Liberty worked hard to stop Bishop and Anei during the final, which gave Johnson some breathing room on the perimeter. He made 4 of 5 three-pointers and put the Titans ahead for good with a three in the second quarter.
“On any given night, it could be anybody,” Schieber said, “and the guys are doing a good job of finding each other on a night when they’re scoring well.”
Bishop, who averaged 16 points in the three tournament games, was selected Most Valuable Player in the Cardinal Division — a nice honor, but Schieber said it’s not what the Titans are all about, which helps explain why Johnson has blended in so well.
“There is not one kid out there that plays for himself,” Schieber said. “At the end of the day, it’s about Lee’s Summit West and not any individual guy and they’ve bought into that.”
The Holiday Classic has always been important for Schieber, and not just because the Titans have won division titles three straight years and eight of the last 10.
When West won the Nelson Division in 2010, it was also the last time Schieber’s mother got to see him coach before passing away in 2011.
“It’s always a special place,” Schieber said. “I still feel my mom watching when we come here.”