EDINBURG — UTRGV’s Quinton Johnson II has always been a prolific shooter.
It started when he was still a kid learning to play and developed in earnest in high school. Johnson was a local standout at Oklahoma Centennial High School in Oklahoma City, where he led the Bison to three consecutive trips to the state playoffs.
He took Centennial as far as the state semifinals in his senior season while averaging a team-best 18 points per game. His stellar shooting then propelled him to an elite prep school, where even from hundreds of miles away Vaqueros head coach Lew Hill took notice.
“I feel like I’m a good shooter and I can make the right plays when I need to,” Johnson said. “I went to state four years in a row. I didn’t win one, but I went to three (at Centennial). Then I went to prep school in Wichita, Kansas, and then I came here and redshirted.”
For Hill and his coaching staff, it didn’t take long to recognize the potential a gifted shooter like Johnson had. They identified him as an ideal fit in the Vaqueros uptempo, aggressive system if he could continue to work at it.
“He’s really turned himself into a good shooter. When he first got here, he wasn’t a great shooter, but he really worked hard at it,” Hill said. “He’s a hard worker. Now I’ve got to get him to relax and do some of the intangible things and grow in the area of taking the right shots and making the right plays.”
Johnson saw the same potential as Hill for a very complementary fit together, and he jumped at the opportunity to be a part of something new at UTRGV.
“It was Coach Hill and Coach (Luke) Mackay,” Johnson said of his reasons for committing to the Vaqueros’ program. “It’s a playing style I’m used to. Personally, I can get up the floor and I’m good in transition, so I feel like that was a big part of it. Also, they were changing the culture here, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Although eager to get to campus and start his college career, Johnson redshirted for the entirety of his first year in Edinburg, which gave him enough time to get acquainted with the team’s system, the speed of the collegiate game and college life.
“I’ve learned more about the offense and just how to be a student athlete. I also learned the coaching and playing style here and how hard you have to play to be a good college basketball player,” he said. “It helped me get a better jump shot and all that stuff. It really helped me think about the game and let the game slow down for me.”
That extra level of familiarity has paid huge dividends for Johnson and the Vaqueros already early in the 2019-20 season, as the second-year forward has latched onto a spot in the team’s rotation and become one of its most consistent bench scorers.
In his most recent outing against Mid-America Christian, he tallied a career-high 20 points and a pair of steals. It marked the third time in nine games that Johnson had notched double-digit points in a contest coming off the bench, which leads the team.
Hill credits Johnson’s poise and scoring potential for the maturity he’s developed since joining the program.
“(Quinton) had one of his best games. He has the potential to do that,” Hill said. “He doesn’t have to do what he did that night, but he has to do some of that every night.”
What’s most impressive about Johnson’s development, though, is how efficiently he’s been shooting the ball lately.
In his 20-point performance, Johnson shot the lights out to the tune of 63.6% from the floor and 42.9% from behind the 3-point line, while also converting all of his free-throw opportunities. On the season, he’s had four contests with multiple 3-pointers and in each game that he’s hit a 3, he’s shot 40% or better from behind the arc.
“It’s his efficiency that’s shown,” Hill said. “Like I told him, doing less sometimes is better. That’s what he has to understand. He just needed to simplify his game, and I think that’s what he’s doing.”
Johnson attributes his recent hot streak to his teammates, namely junior point guard Javon Levi, both directly and indirectly.
Levi missed a good portion of the Vaqueros early schedule with a calf injury, which disrupted the team’s offensive flow and spacing during his absence. But Johnson believes it created opportunities for he and other young players on UTRGV’s bench to gain valuable experience and work their way into the flow of the offense.
“I feel like we were playing good without him and we started to play as a team, but he definitely helps our team. He’s a great point guard,” Johnson said. “We definitely are more comfortable. Coach has been telling us to get the ball moving and be unselfish. We’ve been working well as a team.”
Two of Johnson’s three highest scoring nights have come since Levi’s return to the starting lineup. He believes that confidence gained between he and his fellow shooters has created better spacing for the Vaqueros offense, and Levi’s pretty passing has made their jobs easy in return.
“My teammates have just gotten me the ball and I’ve been knocking down wide-open shots,” he said. “It’s just sort of been happening. Once I just knock down a couple of shots, then my teammates come back to me quick.”
Johnson and the Vaqueros are set to embark on a five-game, 33-day road trip that will feature stops at powerhouse programs in Nebraska, Oklahoma and West Texas. He hopes that his streaky shooting can translate to difficult road environments so the team can score a handful of hard-fought victories before the beginning of conference play.
“We just want to get physically and mentally tough going in and out of games,” Johnson said. “We want to compete our butts off so we can win games. I just have to do whatever it takes to win and play my role.”
UTRGV will kick off its road trip with two games in three days against both the Creighton Blue Jays (7-2) at 7 tonight and the University of Nebraska-Omaha (5-7) at 12:30 p.m. Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska.