Basketball players like Johnny King do not grow on trees, even if he is as tall as one.
The 6-foot-10 senior center has started for the Sage Hill School boys’ basketball team since his freshman year, but he has earned more significant playing time in the last two seasons.
Much of the credit goes to King. He has become better conditioned, and as his basketball intellect has gone up, he has had more to rely on than just his physical gifts.
The size advantage that King possesses is not one that the Lightning have always been privy to. In fact, it was the other way around when 7-foot-5 Mamadou Ndiaye played for Brethren Christian in the same league.
Ndiaye led the Warriors to back-to-back undefeated Academy League titles in 2012 and 2013.
When offseason training picked up in June, Lightning coach Billy Conlon knew that the window was closing to make the most of a great opportunity for the program. King was headed into his senior year, and Conlon let his center know what kind of leader that he expected him to become.
“We kind of pulled Johnny off to the side and said, ‘This is our year, and we’re going to lean on you,’” Conlon said. “‘We fully believe that you’re capable of carrying this team to achieve the kind of success that we’ve never had at this school.’
“That’s winning the league championship [and] going deep into the playoffs.”
King, who was voted the Academy League MVP, delivered in spades for the Lightning. He had 28 points, 26 rebounds and six blocked shots in the Academy League championship game against St. Margaret’s on Jan. 31. Sage Hill’s 63-57 overtime win versus the visiting Tartans gave the Lightning their first league title in program history.
Sage Hill is a school known for its academic rigor. King, a 4.1 [GPA] student with an aptitude for math and science, has learned how to break down defenses, despite the attention that he receives on the low block. Conlon said that King’s understanding of where the second and third defenders are coming from has been a big part of his growth.
“We find different ways of getting him the ball because we don’t want him to stay in one location and have a team be able to figure that out, dedicate resources there,” Conlon said. “We’ll put him in the pick and roll, we’ll put him down on the block, we’ll put him in the high post, and we’ll flare him out a bit for short-corner jump shots.
“As he’s gotten more comfortable, he’s gotten much harder to guard because he’s not just stationary anymore.”
Taking a more disciplined approach in contesting shots has also allowed King to stay on the court.
“I would like to call myself a shot blocker,” King said. “I believe I am, but in the past few games, I’ve really tried hard to reduce the number of fouls I have, just so that I can stay in longer.”
King has relished the opportunity to bring his school into the spotlight, which can be a difficult thing to do for a small school. Sage Hill has a chance to make a deep playoff run, as it is the No. 3 seed in the CIF Southern Section Division 5AA playoffs.
The Lightning defeated Carson California Academy of Math and Science 59-40 in their playoff opener on Friday night, with King contributing 16 points, 21 rebounds and five blocks. Sage Hill (19-10) has now matched its most wins in school history for a single season.
Although receiving a seed in the playoffs inevitably puts pressure on a team to match those expectations, King does not see it that way. Sage Hill has never been past the second round of the section playoffs. The Lightning will have a chance to do that on Tuesday when they take on the winner of Los Angeles Le Lycee and San Gabriel Gabrielino.
“I think of it as an opportunity to do something that our basketball program has never been able to do before,” King said, adding that he is proud of what his team has accomplished so far.
“I’m really happy about that because when I started playing here as a freshman, we were never ranked that high in CIF. Before I came here, we’ve only had, I think, one playoff win, in general.”
Basketball won out over baseball when King made the determination that his size would not work to his advantage. He said he was 6 feet 6 during his freshman year, which would be his final season of baseball.
“I ended up playing freshman year, but in my belief, I became a little bit too tall to play baseball because the strike zone is definitely a really big target for people my size,” King explained.
An avid fan of Will Ferrell, King said that his family enjoys a good prank or two on April Fools’ Day.
“My house goes very crazy on April Fools’ Day,” King said. “My mom, on April Fools’ Day, she’ll wake up, she’ll go out somewhere to eat, spend the whole day out of the house, and then come back late at night because she’s scared of pranks happening to her throughout the day.”
Born: June 15, 2000
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 6 feet 10
Weight: 240 pounds
Coach: Billy Conlon
Favorite food: Korean BBQ
Favorite movie: “Semi-Pro”
Favorite athletic moment: King called winning the Academy League boys’ basketball championship an all-encompassing moment that meant a lot to himself, his team and his school. The senior had only defeated St. Margaret’s once in eight previous games across his four-year varsity career.