By Jeffrey Swindoll
The Lady Bears started the season with a huge question mark about them. Two players were perhaps the only shoe-ins to the starting five — sophomore forward Nina Davis and junior guard Niya Johnson. Both played immensely valuable roles to Baylor’s conference championship run last season.
Davis was the newcomer on the scene and Johnson was second fiddle to the all-American Odyssey Sims on that team. Everyone in the lineup played a role catered around Sims’ superior athleticism on defense and offense. Johnson was subjected to this just as the rest of the Lady Bears were last season.
At the onset of this season, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said she had pieces that could fit just about any style of play. She has height, speed, technical skill and power all in one roster. Understandably so, Mulkey did not have a set plan on how she would tactically shape her team. No single play jumped out at her, signaling her to forge the team around that one player’s skillset.
Mulkey had blank canvas this year, looking for who could be the brush to the masterpiece. Slowly but surely, Johnson solidified herself as the centerpiece to Mulkey’s lineup. Davis, the Lady Bears’ leading score, arguably would not have had the season she had (so far) without Johnson’s work.
“I would definitely say Niya is one of the best point guards in the country,” Davis said. “We just have a team where nobody is selfish. If you have the open shot you take it. You have teammates who go rebound for you and get the ball right back to you if you’re on. We’re like a family and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Johnson exemplifies the spirit of this Lady Bears team — selflessness, as Davis said. Any player can have an impact on the game for the Lady Bears. If Johnson finds them, she’ll put them through, Mulkey said.
It took its fair share of time and trials for Johnson to really take form as Mulkey’s primary playmaker. Baylor’s one loss on the season was Johnson’s lowest point in the year. It’s a long ways away now, but the Lady Bears once did not have a set identity for their playstyle and struggled in forming chemistry. Johnson was pivotal to Baylor’s meshing together this season.
“In our only loss to Kentucky, I got on [Johnson] pretty hard, but I also told her in the middle of their run in Kentucky that she is one of the best point guard in the country and she probably doesn’t remember that, but I told her that in a timeout and I haven’t changed my mind about it,” Mulkey said. “She leads the country in assists. She leads in assist-turnover ratio. She makes the extra pass, but she can score if she needs to. You know she is just having a great year, because she is having a great year we are having a good year.”
You can take the statistics Mulkey said at face value. They are all spot on.
In Baylor’s game against Oklahoma a week ago, Johnson totalled 17 assists, one assist shy of the school-record for most assists in a game. Furthermore, Johnson did not commit a single turnover in that game.
“She’s quiet but deadly,” Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale said. “You have some point guards who are all flash and dash, but she just gets the job done. She is probably one of the most underrated point guards in the country. People don’t know her name, but her numbers are unbelievable. The way she feels the game is exceptional. She really has a great nose for it and plays within herself and knows how to get the players around her in the right place at the right time with the ball in a place where they can do something with it.”
Before that same game, Johnson was also honored with a commemorative basketball, honoring her earning of her 1,000th-career assist for Baylor this season. She’s not the most vocal player on the court by any means. She just quietly works her magic, Mulkey said.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I do it,” Johnson said. “I guess I just get it there at the right time. I couldn’t have this many assists without my teammates making the shots so I’m just thankful for them making the shots and making our team look good.”