Western Washington junior Mac Johnson is a throw-back brand, an old-school center.
Coach Tony Dominguez labeled him a “meat and potatoes guy.”
Vikings followers in recent years have grown accustom to versatile bigs such as Austin Bragg, who dazzle with their explosive above-the-rim play and inside-outside game.
Johnson isn’t that. He’s self-described blue-collar, a lunch-pale and hard-hat type.
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But what the 6-foot-8 first-year Mount Hood Community College transfer offers is something Dominguez has longed for — a true back-to-the-basket fixture on the blocks.
“Austin Bragg was an all-American, but he wasn’t a guy you could throw the ball to on the block and know you’re going to get something out of it,” Dominguez said. “Mac is just a post-’em up, throw-you-the-ball, not really an outside guy, but he is going to work until he gets an easy shot.”
Johnson’s inside presence adds another dimension for the Vikings (14-10, 7-7 GNAC), who are playing their best ball of the season riding a four-game win streak.
Dominguez is confident Johnson will produce one of three results from an entry pass down low.
“When you throw him the ball you know he’s either going to make a bucket, make a free throw or make the right pass and rebound,” Dominguez said.
Johnson is averaging 8.5 points per game, 6.4 rebounds and has been instrumental during Western’s four-game win streak. In those contests, he’s averaging 31.5 minutes, 7 1/2 minutes more than his season average, 12.3 points and seven boards.
Johnson, like the rest of Western’s young team, is performing at the high level anticipated at the beginning of the year.
It’s been a learning process for Johnson moving from junior college to Division II, but for an athlete who’s rarely come off the court the past four games, it’s easy to cherish the playing time he gets.
Three years ago when Johnson was a senior at Gonzaga Prep High School he never thought basketball, a game the WWU junior said he couldn’t imagine his life without, would be a part of his future.
Johnson was in PE class his freshman year at Gonzaga Prep when suddenly he felt severe chest pain. He went to the bathroom and by the time he got there, he could barely stand.
“I called my parents and my dad ran me to the hospital,” Johnson explained. “They weren’t sure at first and then they did an X-ray and a doctor walks in and is like, ‘Yeah, you have a collapsed lung.’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I didn’t expect that at all.”
Johnson’s basketball future immediately was in jeopardy, but a month-long hospital stay that included two separate surgeries to repair his collapsed left lung allowed Johnson to return for his sophomore season.
The Gonzaga Prep star went on to help his school win a Class 4A state championship his junior year, but four games into his senior season chest pain returned.
“I knew it instantly,” Johnson said.
Sure enough, Johnson’s right lung had collapsed, erasing the bulk of his senior basketball season.
Some people are born with the lung injury, Johnson explained, some are just unlucky. Mostly, though, the condition is prominent in tall, skinny males.
“It was real tough,” Johnson said. “I was in and out of the hospital my senior year, and I was trying to come back and play, but with fatigue and it was in the middle of our season. It wasn’t like I would have helped if I got back in time anyways. I was in the hospital for senior night. It was rough, but it definitely game me more motivation to keep fighting once I got out.”
By all estimations, at least by Johnson’s, his basketball days were over.
But little did he know his playing career was just taking off, thanks to a call from an AAU coach a month after his surgery, asking him to fill in during a tournament.
“We ended up playing his senior team in the championship and beating them,” Johnson explained. “And so he asked me to be on his travel team, so I traveled and I went to like Boise and Portland and started getting scouted a little bit more.”
Through tournament exposure Johnson landed at Mount Hood Community College for the 2012-13 season. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.7 rebounds his freshman year. His stats skyrocketed to 19.6 points and 10.6 boards his sophomore season while earning Southern Region Co-Defensive Player of the year honors.
Now he’s capitalizing on a commitment he made with himself once his basketball career was resuscitated.
“It’s real nice being able to put roots down here,” Johnson said of Western. “As soon as I was getting looked at by community colleges out of high school and stuff, before I even committed, I told myself I was going to take basketball as far as I could, so I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
Not only is Johnson, who plans to major in business and spends time mentoring third, fourth and fifth graders at Happy Valley Elementary school, beginning to flourish his first year at WWU, the Vikings are benefiting from him, too.
“He’s gotten into his rhythm, and he’s playing the way we wanted him to play the whole time,” Dominguez said. “He’s a very consistent player, has a lot of ability, isn’t a wow-you guy, but he helps you win.”