By Emilie Fogleman
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
As a former point guard herself, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey knows what it takes to be the best in the nation. Since taking over the women’s basketball program in 2000, she’s consistently produced top-notch point guards, including Sheila Lambert, Chelsea Whitaker, Angela Tisdale and Odyssey Sims.
And she has another one on her hands in Niya Johnson.
“If you look at our record since Niya Johnson has been here, you can see that she knows how to distribute the ball as well as anybody. She can score when needed. She makes everyone around her better,” Mulkey said. “Defensively Niya has the ability to get in the right places to get the steal or loose ball. She’ll even get in there and rebound some. She’s the epitome of a point guard: can do a little bit of everything.”
Johnson, a junior from Gainesville, Fla., came to the Baylor program as a McDonald’s All-American with two state championships under her belt. She led her high school team in scoring, averaging 19.9 points per game. But college basketball is a whole new level of play from high school ball. Johnson had a lot to adjust to from a new team and an experienced head coach.
“I’m sure it was an adjustment for Niya because she is a very pleasant person. She’s playing for a coach that is very demanding, particularly for a coach that has played point guard,” Mulkey said. “She’s had to learn how to handle my expectations of her at that position. I’ve told her many times that she will get a lot of the blame when things go bad whether it was her fault or not. But she will also get a lot of the credit. I’m the hardest on point guards, and she’s handled it beautifully.”
Mulkey knows what it is like being the point guard for one of the nation’s elite programs. She played the position for Louisiana Tech from 1980-84, leading the Lady Techsters to two national titles and two Final Four appearances. Mulkey also won gold with Team USA in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. With those accolades to her name, Coach Mulkey doesn’t shy away from wanting the best out of her point guards.
“It can be tough. She’s mainly hardest on me because she was once a point guard herself. She’s been in those shoes,” Johnson said. “Coach Mulkey knows how to push people’s buttons, but it is all for the better. I’ve become a better person and leader. She makes everyone around her better.”
And better Johnson has become. Her freshman season she averaged only 15.8 minutes a game, dishing out assists to players like Brittney Griner and Destiny Williams. During her sophomore year she led the nation in assist/turnover ratio while setting the Big 12 single season assist/turnover record (244 assists to only 61 turnovers). Now as a junior, Johnson’s game has expanded even further, thanks to Mulkey’s coaching and encouragement.
“I’ve grown so much since freshman year. I used to be quiet and played very timid. This year I’ve gradually become more aggressive on offense by shooting the ball more. I’ve gained confidence in my shot and am a more vocal leader.”
This season Johnson has shown no signs of slowing down, averaging 8.7 assists to lead the nation. She is currently second on Baylor’s all-time career assists list with 503, the second Lady Bear ever to reach the 500 career assists mark, the other being Odyssey Sims. Johnson was born a natural at basketball, but has remained humble.
“I was just born with the ability to pass the ball well. My basketball IQ is good. It’s a blessing to lead the nation in assists,” Johnson said. “All I want to do is get the ball to my teammates to make it easier for them to score.”
The Lady Bears are 18-1, 7-0 so far in their quest to win a fifth consecutive Big 12 Conference title with their point guard leading the way. Coach Mulkey has no doubt that the team wouldn’t be the same without Johnson taking care of the ball.
“Her numbers are unbelievable with the amount of minutes she plays. And she does a lot of other things for us, like guard the opponent’s best perimeter shooter,” Mulkey said. “Niya just has court savvy and is very smart when it comes to the game. We would not be where we are without Niya Johnson.”