In a perfect world, Jayce Johnson would have started and ended high school in one place.
He never would have transferred, never would have had to learn new system after new system, meet new teammate after new teammate, impress new coach after new coach.
“I wanted to stay somewhere for four years,” he says, “but it’s already too late for that.”
Too late indeed.
Johnson has been on the move constantly over the last three years, recently landing at Santa Monica High — the fourth boys basketball program in three seasons for the lanky 7-foot junior. But the journeyman with the impossible wingspan and the size-18 shoes says he believes he’s found the right place.
“This is it,” he says. “I’ll be here for the rest of my high school career.”
Johnson brings an interior presence to an already talented Samohi squad that features Auburn-bound senior Nuwr’iyl Williams, junior Jonah Mathews and freshman point guard Spencer Freedman.
His defending, rebounding and shot-blocking abilities were immediately obvious for the Vikings, whose season continues Friday night with a league game at home against Culver City. And his offensive talent is revealing itself gradually as they work the center into their schemes.
“He’s still getting acclimated to what we do, and we’re still getting used to how to utilize him,” coach James Hecht says. “His conditioning is getting better, and each day he’s getting a little bit better. He’s been very well-received by the other guys on the team. We can really do some things with him being as big as he is and as skilled as he is around the basket.”
The coach’s assessment underscores why Johnson is optimistic about being at Samohi.
Johnson declines to provide details of his tumultuous trail, chalking it up to a blur of blunders, “a lot of bad stories, a lot of politics.” But for one reason or another, he didn’t get the playing time he thought he might and didn’t get the opportunities to prove his skills.
He also blames himself.
“They’re my decisions,” he says, “and I’m going to learn from them.”
Johnson started his prep career at Santa Ana-Mater Dei, where Gary McKnight — California’s winningest coach in high school basketball history — has led the Monarchs to four consecutive state championships. Johnson was part of a title-winning squad that went 34-2 in 2012-13, but he averaged just 2.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
He transferred to Gardena-Junipero Serra for his sophomore season, averaging 9.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game and tallying five double-doubles in 17 games. The gem of his year was a 20-point, 16-rebound performance in the Padres’ win over Sherman Oaks-Buckley.
“I’ve learned so many different things,” he says. “Each place gave me a different look on life, a different look on basketball, a different look on what I need to do to get to where I want to be. … But I wasn’t getting better where I was.”
Johnson left for Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, a well-known magnet for basketball prospects that has produced a handful of NBA players, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Anthony Bennett.
He didn’t last long there. He took the floor just eight times, averaging 3.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game. After logging double-digit minutes in his first five games with the Pilots, he recorded just 13 in his final three games combined.
Attempts to reach his former coaches were not successful.
For the roaming big man, Santa Monica was an enticing destination. It was back in Southern California, where he was born and raised, where he fell in love with basketball as a middle-school student at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo. It was a program that has produced college-level athletes and enjoyed team success in postseason play.
And it fit his on-court criteria.
“I was looking around for schools that didn’t have a big and needed a big,” Johnson says. “I wanted to find somewhere I could go, earn my spot and start playing and get better. I saw Santa Monica as an opportunity. They needed a big. It was the perfect spot.”
Johnson settled in at Samohi and made his debut for the Vikings in a home game Jan. 14, scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in a 63-46 win over Hawthorne.
He was half of a marquee matchup Jan. 23, when Samohi hosted 6-foot-11 Chance Comanche and Beverly Hills in Ocean League action. Johnson held his own and then some.
Midway through the second quarter, the Arizona-bound Comanche gathered the ball in the key, spun towards the middle and put up a close-range shot. It didn’t go anywhere, Johnson in place to reject it. Later in the period, Comanche tried going baseline to no avail, Johnson sliding his feet and forcing a turnover.
Johnson showed poise at the offensive end as well. After being hammered by multiple defenders on a shot attempt early in the third quarter, he walked calmly to the foul line and swished two free throws. He finished with 10 points.
“He got in some foul trouble and fouled out, but he battled,” Hecht says. “There is an adjustment process, a natural process, and we’re still learning a lot about each other. But he picks up the intensity level for our team, and he’s a tremendous kid with tremendous work ethic. In the end, it’s great to have him.”
Johnson appears to be finding his groove. He managed 14 points and 13 rebounds Jan. 24 against Las Vegas. He had 17 points, 15 boards and four blocks Jan. 30 at Hawthorne. And he put up 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks against Las Vegas-Durango a day later.
Johnson says he’s looking forward to the Feb. 10 rematch against Comanche — the two have trained and played summer ball together.
More importantly, though, he’s hopeful that his turbulent trek through high school basketball won’t keep him from pursuing the sport at the next level. Indeed, although his road has ended for now, his journey continues.
Contact Jeff Goodman by phone at 310-573-8351, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter.