When Jaylen Johnson first came to the FIST youth basketball program as a third-grader, the coaches looked at the tallest player on the team and immediately made him the center.
But when teams broke up by position to do drills, coaches always found Johnson among the guards, and had to move him back to the forwards.
“I used to see all the guards do all the dribble moves, they wouldn’t let me do it in practice, so I would just go on the sideline after and I would try moves,” Johnson said.
From a young age, Johnson had the body of a big man and the mind of a guard.
His mother, Janetta Johnson, led the nation in blocked shots at Wisconsin before playing professionally overseas. She passed on both her height and her post skills to her oldest son, both as a coach of his youth teams and on the full basketball court behind their house.
But Johnson also carried a tennis ball around during the day, indulging his love for dribbling.
The result of that dichotomy has been seen on high school courts of Washtenaw County for the past three seasons: a 6-foot-9 big man who can post up down low and handle the ball in the open floor, creating matchup problems galore.
It’s led him to be ranked as one of the country’s top recruits who committed to Louisville this fall.
“Rick Pitino is getting four positions out of this 6-9, what’s classified as a forward, but I classify him as a one through four, and we’ve used him in every capacity.” said Isaac Lockhart, one of Johnson’s coaches at FIST.
And after a season in which he was the focal point of one of the area's best teams, Johnson is the The Ann Arbor News 2014 Washtenaw County boys basketball Player of the Year.
Johnson was also a first-team All-State selection and finished third in the voting for Mr. Basketball -- an award no player in Washtenaw County has ever won.
Johnson averaged 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 blocks for the Grizzlies, who went 18-2 in the regular season and qualified for the Class A regional finals.
Ypsilanti coach Steve Brooks has often said that Johnson could score 30 points per game if he wanted to. But, in the style of his mother's game, Johnson has a strong focus on the defensive end of the floor, blocking shots and rebounding.
“When I see him falling off I say follow your shots, follow everybody else’s shots,” Janetta Johnson said. “I expect you to have rebounds.”
And when he does get on offense, Johnson has often had a pass-first mentality. His coaches initially fought against him handling the ball on the perimeter, until they realized how good the decisions and passes he was making were.
“His IQ was really great, and that’s why we kept fighting against it, because his decision making was probably better than the guards a lot of the time,” Brooks said.
After the graduation of forward Lavonte Davis, Johnson became the leader of a Grizzlies team that entered the season ranked as high as No. 2 in the state in some polls.
But the team didn’t really start to realize its potential until it fell at home to Lincoln on Jan. 17. That, Brooks said, was the point when Johnson addressed the team afterward and took on a leadership role that helped spark the Grizzlies to a 12-game win streak to close the regular season.
“I just didn’t want to lose no more,” Johnson said.
Kyle Austin covers sports for The Ann Arbor News. E-mail him at email@example.com