Jan. 27—GOSHEN — Following an impressive senior season at Concord High School that saw him average 22 points per game, Michael Johnson had a difficult decision to make in regards to his future.
Instead of staying local, Johnson enrolled at Culver-Stockton College — a four-year private college in Canton, Missouri. There, Johnson appeared in 41 games, averaging close to 10 points per game over two seasons he played for the Wildcats.
Johnson was continuing to grow as a college player, but personally, something was missing from Indiana that he couldn't replicate in Missouri. That one thing for him was the presence of his family.
"I was pretty homesick, being all the way away from my family," Johnson told The Goshen News last summer. "That was the number one thing: I just wanted to get closer to home."
Soon after finishing up his second season at Culver-Stockton, Johnson put his doubts behind him, spoke with his family and made the difficult decision to leave Missouri without a cemented path forward.
With the future still fluid, it'd only take a few weeks for everything to change after Johnson received a text from Goshen College men's basketball head coach Jon Tropf. He'd then setup a visit to the school before eventually announcing via Twitter in early May his intentions to transfer just 15 minutes away from home and play for the Maple Leafs.
So far, according to Johnson, enrolling at Goshen College has worked out in almost every way imaginable.
"I'm extremely happy," said Johnson of making the decision to become a Maple Leaf. "I love the campus, I love all my professors. They all really care about us. The classes are a lot harder than my old school, but it's definitely been helping prepare me for my future."
On the basketball court, Johnson's growth at the forward position has been steady. The redshirt sophomore was among six new faces in the offseason, with three new freshman and two fellow transfers also being added to the 2021-22 roster.
Among the fresh faces, Johnson has likely made the biggest impact for Tropf and his staff so far this season. Johnson has started 22 of 23 games and is currently ranked first on the team in points per game with 14.5.
"He's obviously very gifted," said Tropf of Johnson's superb first season at Goshen College. "He really fits what we do. He's a nice low-post presence, and he can also face up and play out on the perimeter. But probably the biggest asset he actually brings is his defense, because he's a really good rim protector, and he's a versatile defender. I think he'll continue to grow in that area."
At 14.5 points per game, Johnson's average has grown significantly during his third season of college basketball. He has stayed consistent — scoring in double-digits 14 times this season — and has shown the ability to take a game over on the offensive side of the court if needed. He's scored 23 or more points five times this season, including a career-high 32 (14-of-18 from the field) on Nov. 20 against Saint Francis.
"A lot of that, I have to give credit to the coaches," said Johnson of his play this season. "They sat me down, and I watched a lot of film with them. They showed me where I can get my baskets, as well as where I could facilitate the ball when passing to other people. But really, it's just been me getting older. I've been able to see the game better and everything's been slowing down more. I've just been getting a lot more confident."
"He's a big-time competitor," Tropf added. "And that's one thing that's made him so good. He also has the ability to hit tough shots, and when he's making them, he has that ability to have big nights. ... When he's playing with confidence, I think he's as good as any low-post player in our league."
Johnson also credits his success on the court this season to being close to home. Having the support of his parents has helped keep him be mentally strong when things don't go his way.
"It's definitely helped a lot, because I've always been a person that gets real hard on themselves," said Johnson of the support at home. "If I make a mistake, I have a tendency of getting in my head. So being close to home has been real great. My father, he helps me in certain situations, and my mother does the same. Being able to get home-cooked meals has been a nice perk as well. That's definitely been a plus."
Following a 3-24 season a year ago, Johnson and fellow transfer Elias Ramirez have helped move the program in a positive direction. Both Johnson and Ramirez are a part of a youth movement currently taking over Tropf's bench. Of the 15 players on the roster, 11 of them are freshmen and sophomores.
Tied in with that youth is a good amount of talent that should continue to evolve over the next two or three seasons, with a player like Johnson leading the way. With continued growth, the Maple Leafs could be on their way to their first above .500 season since 2015-16 sometime very soon.
"I'm actually really excited about that," said Johnson of the team's future. "To me, I see a lot of potential with this team, especially with our freshman. Greg Johnson, he has the potential to be one of the best guards in our league one day. (Gabriel McQuay), he's just a solidified bucket. He can do anything on the offensive side of the court. And (Clayton MacLagan), he could be one of the best shooters in our league once he gets the opportunity to get some more shots up. So, yeah, I'm excited to see what could happen in the future."
Evan Lepak can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.