MILWAUKEE — The grin on Jajuan Johnson’s face filled the Al McGuire Center. He could have just been happy to be at his first media day as a college basketball player, but it’s hard to imagine the freshman guard didn’t hear the praise his head coach gave him just minutes earlier.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams didn’t need much time to think after being asked which player had impressed him the most during bootcamp and early season practices.
“I don’t have to think about that long or dress it up in fancy words, Jajuan Johnson,” Williams said. “Freshman, stud, answered the bell every day, put his hands on his knees the least amount of times of anybody on our team.
“He had no idea what he was getting into but showed up every day. That’s my kind of guy. Hands down, easily number one.”
The highest ranked recruit in the Buzz Williams era at Marquette, Johnson was supposed to be able to ease his way into the spotlight. Vander Blue was expected to return at shooting guard, allowing Johnson to adjust to college basketball from a bench role.
But everything changed when Blue surprisingly decided to skip his senior year and enter the NBA Draft. Now Johnson will be thrust into a big spot from the get go, something he seems ready to grasp.
“It just means that I have to step up more and be more aggressive than I have been before,” Johnson said.
The freshman from Memphis, Tenn., will compete with junior Todd Mayo for the starting spot at shooting guard, but it’s hard to imagine Johnson not in the starting lineup eventually after all the praise he’s receiving.
A compliment from Williams is genuine but rare, especially for a freshman. He’s as honest as they come and isn’t afraid to call out a player in front of his teammates or the media. So when Williams says Johnson has impressed, he means it.
“He’s encouraged me more than any other coach I’ve played for,” Johnson said. “It’s really fun playing for Buzz because I’ve never really been encouraged before. It’s really given me a confidence booster.”
Marquette’s season always starts with what Williams calls “Boot Camp”. It’s a grueling week of intense conditioning inside of the Al McGuire Center. Players are held to strict time standards for each workout and each member of the team must finish in the allotted time or they all run again.
Freshman often struggle with the mental and physical battle the workouts present, as “Boot Camp” usually serves as a welcoming to major college basketball.
“It’s tough because I’ve never done that much running before,” Johnson said. “I really haven’t experienced that type of working before. When I came in I was like ‘What are we doing, coach?’ Hopefully it will pay off in the end.”
Johnson not only met the challenge of earning Williams’ respect for his performance, but he earned his teammates trust in the process.
“The thing that’s shocked me the most is the composure of Jajuan,” senior forward Jamil Wilson said. “You look at him and you think he’s a little like Davante (Gardner) because he doesn’t talk much, he’s quiet. He’s a big goofball, but his composure is great. He doesn’t get rattled under pressure.”
For Wilson, it’s easy to see why Johnson has already risen to where the Golden Eagles can begin to count on him this season. A naturally-gifted scorer, Johnson can put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways. He’s athletic enough to beat his defender off the dribble but also has the potential to be a good 3-point shooter.
Marquette is going to need Johnson to contribute right away in order to achieve its team goals, something many feel he’s ready to take on.
“His work ethic and his mentality about everything, his every day habits, he doesn’t really complain about anything,” Wilson said. “He just gets up and does it, regardless of what it was. In bootcamp and individual workouts, we were able to rely on Jajuan to take a sprint off our hands or something like that.
“Coming into a role like that as a freshman is a heavy burden, but he won’t let it weigh too much on him. We’ll take the weight off his shoulders when he needs us to because he’s showed he can do that for us.”
Williams has yet to commit to a starting lineup, but both Johnson and Mayo are likely to be needed to play quite a bit after news of freshman guard Duane Wilson’s fractured leg broke last week. Junior Derrick Wilson will likely start at point guard, but Mayo may be needed for backup minutes at the position.
Ranked as the 32nd-best recruit in the nation and the seventh-ranked shooting guard by Scout.com, Johnson isn’t worrying about whether he starts right away or not. He’s just looking to continue doing the same things that have already earned him praise.
“I just want to win,” Johnson said. “Really, I don’t have much expectations because I don’t know what I’m getting myself into right now. I’m just going along and playing it by ear. We have a lot of older guys, so I’m just listening to them.
“I’ve only ever played for a winning program. Coming here is no different. We have higher expectations after reaching two Sweet 16’s and having the Elite Eight next year.”