By positional description he’s a stretch four forward, by scouting report he’s essentially a matchup nightmare, and by nickname he’s fondly referred to by his teammates as “Sammy J.”
The best way to encapsulate Riverside-Brookfield senior Sam Johnson’s dominant play this season, however, is simply beast mode. Urban Dictionary characterizes it as, “an attitude turned on when in a really athletic state of mind.”
At the professional sports level, guys like Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and new San Diego Padres outfielder Matt Kemp have been known to transform into this state of supreme athletic production.
If you want to see beast mode in full effect at the local high school hoops level, simply stop by Dudley Gymnasium and watch Johnson do work for the Bulldogs.
RBHS coach Tom McCloskey certainly believes his prized power forward meets the criteria for bm status.
“Sam has just become a beast,” McCloskey said. “His scoring, rebounding and versatility have made him a great player. He’s also an unselfish player, great teammate and tremendous leader. This year he’s shooting more and making the most of it.
“He’s always had skills but his toughness and aggressiveness has gone to an amazing level. The things he does on the court and the impact he has on games you can’t coach. Sam has made himself into a great player.”
Added RBHS assistant coach Mike Reingruber: “Most big kids expand their game by going from an inside player to an outside player. When Sam was growing up, he was a tremendous shooter on the lower levels. He had games at the lower levels where he made multiple [9, 7 and 6] three-point shots and was never a tremendous rebounder.
“All of a sudden he grew a few inches, got in even better shape and you have a versatile 6-7 kid that can shoot the three, pass well and bang inside.”
Johnson is averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds for RBHS (7-0, 3-0 Metro Suburban). He has recorded double figures in both points and rebounds in six of seven games this season. During his breakout junior campaign, Johnson had nine double-doubles, including six in a row to close out the season.
Johnson’s three-year varsity transformation from being an indecisive sophomore to becoming an invaluable senior has been interesting to watch.
“I’m more aggressive this season than the past few years,” said Johnson, who is being recruited by several Division III schools. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to help my teammates. I’m trying to help find open shots for guys like Jalen [Clanton] and Henry [Trelenberg]. For me, it’s really just about playing within the flow of the game.
“In the past, I’ve been more of an outside shooter. This year I’m scoring in a variety of ways. I’ve also taken my rebounding to the next level.”
Johnson’s impressive development has meshed nicely with the Bulldogs’ early season evolution. 6-7 Mark Smith, 6-6 Paul Sitkiewicz and the 6-7 Johnson comprise a formidable frontline.
Junior Daniko Jackson and sophomores Jalen Clanton and Henry Trelenberg comprise the key pieces of an exciting backcourt.
As for the low key Johnson, his numbers speak for themselves.
“Sam looks harmless but when he gets on the court it seems like he stays a step ahead,” Sitkiewicz said. “He is one of my favorite teammates, and I’ve been lucky to play with him for so many seasons.”
The Bulldogs’ versatility throughout the lineup is a major advantage.
When Jackson turned one of his ankles against Immaculate Conception, Clanton switched from off guard to point guard seamlessly. Clanton dished out 13 assists in the team’s two wins over the weekend. Jackson is expected back in action this week.
“We’ve been executing and shooting the ball very well,” Jackson said. “Our pressure defense is giving some teams trouble.”
Johnson scored 28 points and hauled down 21 rebounds in the Bulldogs’ 94-60 demolition of Aurora Central Catholic on Saturday. He also put up 23 points and 17 boards as RBHS cruised Immaculate Conception 69-42 on Friday.
“Sam is a great player,” Jackson said. “With his ability to shoot, rebound and defend, he’s very versatile and he never takes a play off.”
Earlier this season, Johnson dropped a career-high 30 points during a 70-60 victory over Wheaton Academy. In the Bulldogs’ signature win to date, a 62-57 victory over Oak Park and River Forest, to clinch the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Tournament title, Johnson scored 12 points and ripped down 16 boards against the very athletic Huskies.
Aside from his scoring and rebounding, he’s an excellent passer and solid defender.
While Johnson’s play commands individual praise, his focus is on team success.
“Coming into the season we felt like we were a good team and we’ve proven that,” Johnson said. “Our goals are to win a conference championship and a regional title and go from there. My teammates are great and our coaches believe in us. I’m loving every second of this season.”