Round Mound of Sound : UCLA: Kris Johnson's biggest contribution has been to fire up Bruins against Duke.


On a team with quiet confidence and a graceful, fast-breaking demeanor, Kris Johnson is a broad and bouncy contrast.

Six feet four, 230-plus pounds, all shoulders, hips and mouth, the freshman from Crenshaw High was knocked out of UCLA's regular rotation because of knee and leg injuries and never made it back.

For the son of former UCLA great and current Bruin radio analyst Marques Johnson, this season, which started with the coaching staff projecting him as a major contributor, could have been written off.

But wait. Johnson asked for and got senior Ed O'Bannon's approval to lecture the team that it was playing too cautiously after a sluggish first half against Duke on Sunday.

And after the Bruins toasted the Blue Devils in a second-half rout, O'Bannon, UCLA's candidate for national player of the year, saluted Johnson, who has been tossed out of practice and been seen pouting on the bench, but who has retained his teammates' respect.

"That's just my personality," Johnson said. "Throughout my life, I've always been a very emotional person. So if I get mad, everybody will see it. And sometimes I snap, which I need to control.

"Maybe I need to tone that down a little bit, but I'm not going to lose it completely."

And the pep talk during the Duke game?

"To me, it's a carryover from high school," said Johnson, who was the hit of a recent pep rally when freshman standouts Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson shied away from the microphone.

"I was the one to get everyone pumped up. Now, sometimes I have to catch myself because I want to say so much. But (Sunday), I just went off."

It's Johnson edginess, and knack for scoring and rebounding in traffic, that caught the UCLA coaching staff's attention during recruiting--and again, most dramatically, during UCLA's early practices last fall, culminating in his leading all scorers in the intrasquad game.

Johnson was slowed by arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last summer, then, after his successful preseason practices, he suffered a small stress fracture in his left leg that sidelined him for a month. When he came back, he was about 20 pounds heavier and could never catch up to midseason conditioning.

But his preseason showing left the UCLA coaches eager to see more. So much so that they didn't want him to redshirt this year, in case the Bruins needed a rugged presence for the stretch run.

"We tease him and tell him he's like our Oakland Raider," assistant coach Mark Gottfried said. "He's a guy that's kind of ornery and mean, and we like that about him. We don't want him to soften up and become passive.

"We want him to be aggressive and be who he is--a physical factor that sometimes we don't necessarily have."

Observers have looked at his rectangular body and raised serious questions about Johnson, despite the blood lines and back-to-back state titles he helped acquire during his two years at Crenshaw after spending his first two years at Montclair Prep.

He's at least 20, maybe 30, pounds too heavy, scouts say, so how will he be able to guard anybody or shoot over the tall trees?

Johnson concedes he could lose a few pounds--something he says he wants to do this summer--but argues that, whatever his body-fat percentage, the only numbers that count are in the statistic line.

"I might not be like Tremaine (Fowlkes, the sculpted California star freshman), all rocked up and cut," Johnson said. "But, I mean, I can play. I don't really care what people say, they can call me fat boy, roly-poly, but bottom line is, I'll take them all to the hole."

UCLA Coach Jim Harrick says he isn't terribly concerned with Johnson's extra pounds.

"Some guys can play with it, some can't," Harrick said. "I'm from the old school. I think if he lost some weight, it would help him tremendously. But then his effectiveness might go away, because when he gets his big rump into you, a lot of things can happen.

"He's really clever with his body, with his hips, keeping guys away from him. Once he gets his hip into you, he's hard to guard."

Johnson, whose facial expressions are hardly ever muted, admits that it was hard to deal with riding the bench once he was back from his injury. But he says his father was the first to tell him that it was time to enjoy UCLA's success, not lose himself to frustration.

"At first, I kind of pouted on the bench, I was a little mad," Johnson said. "And he was the main one getting on me, getting on my case, telling me to root my teammates on, be happy for them, because they're my teammates. They're not my enemies.

"We're winning. We're winning every game. We're playing like the best basketball in the past 10 years here. So there's no reason to be mad."

How big of an influence was his dad? Johnson says he might have picked up a little of his bite from the days he spent dealing with other people's expectations of the son of Marques Johnson.

"A lot of the battles I had were with people thinking because I was his son that I'd get everything," Johnson said. "And I wanted to disprove that, because I really didn't, to tell you the truth. My dad was in the NBA, but I didn't get everything I wanted. Nothing was really ever given to me."

Recently, Marques Johnson gave his son something--a glowing review of UCLA's prospects in this year's tournament.

"My dad came to my dorm room the other night, and he was really excited," Johnson said. "He said, 'I think you guys can go all the way.' He went out and told me that.

"My dad, he's usually right. There's nothing he's ever been wrong on, ever. I'm serious. About myself, about my Crenshaw team. . . . He told me after we lost two games early, he told me we were going to win 18 in a row and the state championship my junior year. And I didn't believe him, and then it happened.

"So if everything holds up, he's going to be right this year."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World