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Photo by Gerald Castillo

Texas State's Jayla Johnson finds ‘The Big Ticket’ to success

Texas State Women's Basketball
Saturday, December 22, 2018

Kevin Garnett had four technical fouls his rookie season in the NBA. Jayla Johnson only had one as a freshman.

Texas State was playing Coastal Carolina at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans on March 8 in the Sun Belt tournament quarterfinals. Johnson checked into the game with 3:10 left in the first half and the Bobcats up, 31-27.

She picked up her first foul 26 seconds later, surrendering an and-1 layup to then-freshman forward Alise Davis. Davis hit the free throw and Johnson looked to make up for it on the other end. Texas State went to the freshman inside. Johnson went up for a layup of her own.

She missed. Senior guard Taeler Deer scooped the offensive board and putback, but Johnson was called for her second foul trying to box out. Two fouls and a missed layup in 49 seconds. She knew she was coming out of the game. She also knew she probably wasn’t going to get back in. And she only had herself to blame. Frustrated, she slapped the floor.

A referee T’d her up for it. Johnson hustled back to the Bobcat bench, struggling to keep her head up.

“What did you say?” Texas State head coach Zenarae Antoine asked as Johnson approached.

“I didn’t say anything,” the forward replied. Antoine turned to the official and got the same answer.

“So you gave her a T for hitting the floor?” the coach responded in disbelief.

Johnson never returned to the court, but continued to cheer on her teammates from the sideline. The Bobcats came out with a 78-69 victory, advancing to the semifinals of the conference tournament. It was a low moment for the rookie. The Dallas native’s had a few since moving to San Marcos in 2016.

Texas State will live with all of them. The infectious highs of its most emotive player outweigh any unfortunate mistakes her fervor brings.

“You never want to take away the passion,” Antoine said. “The team will ride on your emotions because you’re able to get them to a great place.”

Antoine recruited Johnson out of Dallas Lincoln for her energetic dynamism. With a lanky, slender, 6-foot-1 frame, the post uses her size to bully smaller defenders inside and her quickness to attack slower plodders on the perimeter.

The way Johnson ran the floor, the physicality she dished out, the verve radiating from her play, it all reminded Antoine of a certain NBA legend.

“I think a lot of people look at her as a — she has the ability, maybe, eventually to be like a (Kevin) Durant-type player, but to me, her guard skills aren’t there yet,” Antoine said. “I look at her and I think of Kevin Garnett.”

Johnson agrees with the comparison. She’s obsessed with The Big Ticket. 

During the offseason, Antoine showed Johnson a video posted on Garnett’s Twitter account, a promotion for the 42-year-old’s “Area 51” collaboration with NBA on TNT. Highlights of his storied career, his biggest battles with the league’s biggest men, flickered between sentences.

“The things I would do with Chris Webber, I couldn’t do with Rasheed (Wallace) or Tim Duncan,” Garnett says wearing his signature look, a black jacket with the hood only halfway on. “Dissecting, breaking they ass down, bit by bit, year by year. I knew all these guys’ moves, counters, A move, B move, C move. I knew these guys better than they knew themselves.”

Johnson might know Garnett better than he knows himself. She watches the video before every game. She steals his post moves. She wears a hoodie over her hair bun.

She trash talks. Garnett mastered the art on the blacktops of Springfield Park in Mauldin, S.C. Johnson was introduced to it by her stepfather. 

Tony Swindle grew up watching the NBA in perhaps its physically roughest period. The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons set a league-wide tone that basketball is, in fact, a contact sport. Hard fouls and hand checks were common. So was running your mouth.

“Just that whole era of the ‘90s was a lot of trash talk,” Swindle said. “You had Michael (Jordan), you had Kevin (Garnett), you had all those guys ... you know, it was a lot of competitors at that time.”

Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves as an 18-year-old high school prospect in 1995. He proved early on in his career he could hang with the fully-developed, grown men of the sport and eventually became Swindle’s favorite player.

Swindle was a 6-foot-2 guard at Jarvis Christian College, graduating in 2005 and spending “a hot second” playing professionally overseas in Beijing, China. When he joined Johnson’s family, he passed down his love of basketball — and Garnett.

“I told her ‘Watch the 90s, watch the early 2000s,’” Swindle said. “To see that sometimes and to be that player, you have to have a certain mentality on the court. So, she took it, she ran with it.”

But even Garnett didn’t take the league by storm as a rookie. Minnesota had Christian Laettner and Tom Gugliotta — a 4-year and 6-year veteran, respectively — starting ahead of Garnett in his first year with the team.

Johnson rode the bench as a freshman, too. The Bobcats had four seniors -- Zandra Emanuel, Ericka May, Zelor Massaquoi, Ti’Aira Pitts — all ahead of her on the depth chart. Johnson made 24 appearances during the 2017-18 season, but averaged just 6.3 minutes per game.

“It was tough,” Johnson said. “It was really tough because we would be down in games and I would just feel like ‘Coach, put me in.’ And so, you know, I felt like I could get us up to the lead or be a spark.”

Antoine said the sophomore benefitted from sitting behind all of those upperclassmen, though, whether she realizes it or not. She had to learn how to be a good teammate, how to positively impact the game without many opportunities and how to make the most of the opportunities that did come.

It’s why Johnson was so upset with herself after receiving the technical foul. She had an opportunity and wasted it. She had a negative impact. She didn’t help her teammates.

But she learned from it. Just like Garnett.

Laettner was traded to the Atlanta Hawks midway through the 1995-96 season. Garnett never came off the bench another game in his life. He finished the year averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds and made the All-Rookie second team. The next season, his numbers jumped to 17 points and eight rebounds. 

Johnson’s made a similar leap from year one to year two. She’s still coming off the bench, acting as Antoine’s spark plug. But she’s getting triple the minutes per game she did last year, and has already has surpassed her freshman minutes total in nine games as a sophomore. She’s third on the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 9.6 and 4.3 per game, respectively.

Garnett went on to become a 15-time All-Star, won the Most Valuable Player award in 2004 and the NBA Championship in 2008. What kind of potential does Johnson have?

“She still hasn’t even scratched the surface of her abilities,” Swindle said.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a forward who’s had an offensive impact the way that she does,” Antoine said. “The hope is that if we can keep Jayla in a consistent place, it’s going to really help our team quite a bit.”

To get there, Johnson will need the same exuberance Garnett exhibited throughout his career. Garnett used to double-fist Gatorades to fuel his adrenaline. Johnson’s energy is God-given.

“I play every game like it’s my last, so I’ma just give it all I got,” Johnson said. “I can’t just go out there with a cocky attitude or none of that. I just go out there, just do what I do.”

What does she do?

“I do it,” she says laughing, words failing her. “I don’t know how I would describe it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story listed Tony Swindle as Jayla Johnson’s father. Swindle is Johnson’s stepfather.