By: Monty Mosher
Johneil Johnson chased his basketball dream down the road. But that trail only showed him how much he missed home.
The guard from Lake Echo, N.S., left the Regina Cougars after a strong season in 2016-17, sitting out a season to decide his next move. He committed to Jonah Taussig's Saint Mary's Huskies last Christmas.
The three-time NSSAF provincial champion with the Auburn Drive Eagles doesn't regret where he's been since graduating from high school. There was a prep school in Las Vegas, then another in North Carolina, before settling into Canadian university sport with the Cougars.
He had an NCAA dream, hoping to land a Division I scholarship. There were some Division II schools interested and some junior colleges, but that was it.
The Huskies have been like a warm blanket. The 21-year-old Johnson is averaging 13.8 points per game in 22 minutes coming off the bench as Saint Mary's has opened the conference schedule with a 6-0 record. His scoring average per minutes on the floor ranks third in the AUS.
Mild ankle sprain
He helped the team to victory in the Shoveller tournament at Dalhousie last weekend, but was unable to play in the final due to a mild ankle sprain. He doesn't expect the injury to cost him much time with the regular season due to resume on Friday at home against St. Francis Xavier.
"I was away so long from my family, my friends," said Johnson. "Basically, straight out of high school I was in Las Vegas, North Carolina and Regina. I hadn't really played home – ever. I just felt I had to come back home and play in front of them."
Johnson played 20 games for Regina, all coming off the bench, and scored 12.2 points per game. He was named to the conference all-rookie team.
He'd played in the age-group nationals in Regina for Team Nova Scotia, so he knew a little about the place. The Regina coaching staff worked hard to recruit him.
He doesn't regret his time there, but the tug to get back to the Maritimes was always present. His younger brother, Kyree Thompson, is a talented high school player with the Dartmouth Spartans.
Talked to Nevell Provo
Johnson arrived at Saint Mary's in the same year as guard Nevell Provo, another Nova Scotian with the same community background. Provo played three seasons for Loyola-Maryland of the Patriot League.
"He made the same decision about the same time I did," said Johnson. "I talked to him about it. We talked back and forth. We grew up together and played together with the North Preston Bulls and East Preston Pacers. We talked about teaming up and now we're home."
Provo missed most of the first semester with a broken hand, but played in the Shoveller and will be around for the stretch run.
Taussig wanted Johnson out of Auburn Drive and out of prep school. He didn't get him the first time around.
He said there is so much to like about Johnson's game.
"He's been instant offence for us off the bench this year," he said. "He currently leads our team in scoring in 22 minutes per game.
"He's pretty quiet on the court, but is ultra-competitive and hates to lose. He plays much bigger than his height and is one of the best rebounding guards in the country. He's a three-time high school provincial champion. He finds ways to win."
'It's been wonderful'
Transferring home doesn't always have a fairy-tale ending. Playing in front of friends and family creates a different expectation than playing, sometimes anonymously, on the road.
"It's been wonderful," said Johnson. "The community is behind my back. Coach Taussig has made it so comfortable for me and that whole process was so smooth."
It wasn't perfect. He heard an inner voice now and then. He had moved around some and now had to sit out for a year. He never lost his drive, but he wondered what it might do to his skills.
"There was a lot of time by myself, wondering how things were going to go. But I believed in myself, believed in my family, believed in God, and, so far, everything has been working out."
He's found no difference in the AUS brand of basketball. Basketball is basketball as far as he's concerned.
But what has changed is he looks out across a conference where long-time basketball friends, many his ex-teammates, are rivals. He points to Acadia's Nick De Palma and St. F.X.'s Tristen Ross as examples. "These are guys I grew up with."
Provo said it couldn't have worked out better for his friend and teammate.
"He's back home, back in his element enjoying his family," he said. "On the basketball side, I think with our free-flowing system he really has thrived.
"We have a guard-heavy team and we play fast. For a guy with his athleticism, he really can shine in that style of play."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter with more than 30 years covering university sport in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)