Editor’s note: This is the second in a weeklong series of stories on the Sacred Heart Cathedral boys basketball team leading up to Saturday’s state championship game.
By Jeremy Balan
On the scoreboard, an ordinary jump shot and an emphatic dunk are both worth two points, but their impact on a game can be entirely different.
The spark and momentum gained from a dunk, especially in high school basketball, can be the difference between winning and losing. Sacred Heart Cathedral senior forward Taylor Johns has provided that spark on so many occasions this season.
The dunks can come on breakaways, on the block or on alley-oops, but his trademark seems to be flying through the center of the lane to follow missed shots with an equally energizing (for his team) and deflating (for the other team) flush.
“It’s just fun,” Johns said. “It’s a momentum-builder. Not just for me and [fellow senior forward] Josh [Fox], but our guards get pumped up and the other team gets shaky after big plays like that.”
Although he was listed at 6-foot-4 on the Irish roster to start the season, he’s actually closer to 6-foot-6, but his lanky arms and legs, along with his presence and position on the court, almost make him look larger than that.
He also embraces the persona that he has created, whether through YouTube video highlights and mix tapes or his Twitter handle (@TayBangOut_5), as a player that can not only score, but score with style. That persona has found Johns in the crosshairs of opposing fans, most notably in “The Jungle” at Serra, where the student section has hurled insults and taunts at Johns.
“They don’t do that unless you’re a good player,” said Sacred Heart head coach Darrell Barbour. “But he’s the kind of kid that can handle that.”
Despite a standout junior season, Division I recruiters were not knocking down Johns’ door, but now he’s the only Irish senior that is getting interest from multiple D-I programs. Johns has already received a scholarship offer from UC Riverside and has also garnered interest from Portland, Sacramento State and Louisiana-Monroe.
The reason for the increased interest has been a stark improvement in his perimeter game, where he has shown an ability to hit outside shots, drive past and back down defenders, as well as distribute.
“There’s no doubt that he’s made a lot of progress and that’s impressive to see,” said Gerry Freitas, the director of Hoop Review, a scouting service for college coaches. “Personally, I get excited when I see progress, because I know that has to do with the kid’s effort. [Barbour] obviously does a good job, but a lot of that has to do with the kid. You don’t develop magically.”
Even last season, many viewed Johns as a one-dimensional player, but he still has plenty of room for improvement to shift to his likely college position as a small forward or wing player.
“He’s obviously an elite athlete,” Freitas said. “You won’t find a better athlete. The concern is at the next level, he projects to be a 3 man and his 3 skills aren’t quite there yet. That’s how schools are evaluating him.”
Johns also hesitates, at times, to take outside shots and has had ugly moments this season at the free-throw line.
In some games, his free-throw stroke is fluid and he steps to the line with confidence, while in others he has struggled mightily, including an 0-for-8 performance on the road against Riordan this season.
“I just don’t know. At practice, I hit them,” Johns said. “I think sometimes I’m up there too jittery. If I go up there calm and just shoot, and have a flow to the shot, it goes in more.”
The free throws speak to a larger issue of consistency with Johns, one in which he openly acknowledges.
He can alternate from being a dominant force (26 points against Miramonte on March 10), to middling (13 points against Center on March 13) to largely ineffective (four points apiece in two games against Bellarmine and five points in the Bruce-Mahoney game against St. Ignatius).
One thing is clear, however, and it is validated by the Division I interest. Johns will improve and it’s only a question of to what degree.
“He will get better because he’s a kid that will play seven days a week,” Barbour said. “You don’t have to ask him to work on his game and he will run to the weight room, not walk away from it. To his credit, it’s quite obvious he’s put in the time to get better. His transformation didn’t come overnight.”