A Hot Spark From Flint

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His name is familiar to Southern California basketball fans, but Pepperdine guard Marques Johnson was unfamiliar with Malibu's natural disasters until he visited the school on a recruiting trip last winter.

Heavy rains had caused mudslides in the area, marring Pepperdine's picture-postcard image.

Johnson, though, wasn't the least bit deterred. A native of Flint, Mich., Johnson figured the weather was still an improvement over the bitter cold of the Midwest. And he got to see the ocean for the first time.

"I was just happy there wasn't going to be any snow," he said. "I can deal with the rain, but I was trying to get away from the snow."

Johnson's aversion to cold apparently carries over to the basketball court, where his hot shooting has sparked Pepperdine (5-3) in several games. The 5-foot-11 junior is averaging a team-best 15.8 points a game, having made 21 of 53 (39.6%) three-point shots. He also leads the Waves in steals and minutes played and ranks second in assists.

"Marques has given us a big lift with his three-point range," Pepperdine forward Bryan Hill said. "It opens up the inside game and makes things so much easier."

Johnson, who is no relation to the former UCLA and NBA star of the same name, has made a smooth transition to Division I competition after playing the two previous seasons at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Pepperdine Coach Tony Fuller says Johnson is fulfilling the promise he showed last season when he led Indian Hills to a 31-3 record and the Iowa Division I title.

"It's still early, but we expected him to come in and do what he's doing," Fuller said. "He's a good ballhandler, he's competitive and he can shoot the ball. I'm impressed with the fact that he's so unselfish. He sets good screens and he comes to play every day."

For a team that averaged only 66.3 points and lacked consistent outside shooting last season, Johnson's arrival at Pepperdine has been a godsend.

Among the early highlights:

* With the Waves missing two injured starters, Johnson scored a season-high 32 points on 10-for-18 shooting, making four three-point baskets, in a 90-81 victory over Cal State Northridge on Dec. 5.

* He scored 16 of his 18 points, including four three-pointers, in the second half of a 99-88 victory over Weber State on Dec. 9. It was Pepperdine's highest-scoring game since the 1992-93 season.

* He led Pepperdine with 24 points on nine-for-14 shooting, including five three-pointers, in a 76-62 victory over Seattle on Nov. 28.

"He's given us a consistent outside threat," Fuller said.

Amiable and modest, Johnson credits his fast start to good coaching and talented teammates. He says his job is simple: make the open three-pointer.

"I'm just a role player like everybody else," he said. "I try to get the ball to the big men. If [the defense] sags off, I hit the shot."

When Johnson finds a rhythm, he can be tough to stop. Weber State guard Damien Baskerville found that out when the Wildcats played Pepperdine. Johnson ignited a 67-point second half for the Waves by hitting his first four three-point attempts.

"[Baskerville] made me mad," Johnson said. "He said I wasn't going to score anymore after I hit the first three-pointer, so I had to show him that I can score at will."

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But Johnson has his off days too. One of them came Tuesday when he made only four of 14 shots (one of five three-pointers) in a 97-80 loss to Southern Utah. Pepperdine will resume play at 2 p.m. today with a nonconference game at San Jose State.

Johnson developed his basketball skills in Flint, a city that has produced a fair share of standout athletes. Among the graduates of Johnson's high school, Northwestern, are NBA players Glen Rice and Jeff Grayer, and NFL receiver Andre Rison.

As a senior, Johnson guided Northwestern to a 21-4 record and was an All-Michigan first-team selection.

Academic problems prevented him from attending a four-year college after high school. Johnson said the coach of his AAU team suggested he attend Indian Hills.

It turned out to be a good move. Not only did Johnson strengthen his game at the junior college, he improved his performance in the classroom and graduated on time last spring. By signing with Pepperdine, he turned down scholarship offers from several other schools, including Kansas State, coached by former Wave Coach Tom Asbury.

"A lot of schools didn't think I was going to graduate," Johnson said. "Pepperdine and Coach Fuller stuck with me."

Johnson recently changed his major from physical education to art, which makes sense because he considers himself an artist on the court, in the mold of his boyhood idol, Isiah Thomas.

"If I see a little opening, I try to create," he said.

So far, Johnson hasn't been asked to create all that much. A point guard throughout high school and junior college, he plays mostly off-guard for Pepperdine because of the team's outside shooting need. Junior Khary Hervey starts at point guard in a three-guard lineup that includes junior Gerald Brown, the Waves' leading scorer last season.

"I sacrifice and do anything for the team," Johnson said. "I'd rather have the ball more because I think I can create a little bit more than I do now. I prefer the point."

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Pepperdine's coaches say Johnson is versatile enough to play both guard positions.

"He's more of an off-guard because he shoots the ball so well," assistant coach Marty Wilson said. "But we will run him at the point if there's a shot we have to get because he creates better than anybody else on our team.

"But we don't want to put too much pressure on him, where he's thinking too much. It takes a lot of guys coming from junior college a semester to get going. Some guys, it takes longer. But he has adapted well."

In a lot of ways, Johnson says there isn't much difference between going to school in Malibu and Iowa.

Describing Pepperdine, he said, "It's country-like. There isn't any kind of social life. It's the same as Iowa because you don't have time to do anything other than study and concentrate on basketball. I don't have any problems with that."

In fact, Johnson says he doesn't have many interests away from the gym.

"I'm not going to lie to you. I don't like to do anything besides basketball," he said.

But Johnson is thinking of branching out into other forms of entertainment now that he's closer to Hollywood.

"I want to be a movie star," he said, smiling at the thought. "I never told anybody that, but I'd like to be in the movies."

For now, he'll have to settle for starring in game films.

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