College was fun for Malik Johnson.
A point guard on the Canisius men’s basketball team, he spent his first two years working on his degree in sports management and enjoying the spoils of college life.
But he considered some of the excess as he entered his third year of college. Johnson knew there was room to get serious – personally, academically and athletically. He had to align his priorities in three things: school, faith and basketball.
“In college, there are a lot of distractions,” Johnson said. “Parties, going out, clubs, girls, things like that, and my first couple years, I did those things, a lot. But I cut out all those other distractions and I wanted to see where it could really get me, if I locked into basketball, compared to my first two years."
After his sophomore year, he evaluated what he needed to do to be a better basketball player and to earn his master’s degree in sports administration. Now in his final semester at Canisius, he already has an undergraduate degree in sports management and is on a timeline to earn two degrees in four years, and to finish as one of the school's accomplished point guards.
Canisius (6-10, 1-4 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) hosts Siena at 7 p.m. Friday at the Koessler Athletic Center, and Johnson is expected to make his 116th consecutive start. He’s one of five players in program history to start at least 115 games – and the 5-foot-10 guard has started every game he’s played.
Johnson is also third in career assists at Canisius (545) and needs six to move into sole possession of second. Frank Turner is the school's career leader (616), ahead of Javone Moore (550).
Johnson is averaging 12.7 points, and a team-high six rebounds per game. He leads the MAAC in minutes per game (38.1), assists (90) and steals (41).
“I really locked in, to see where it could help me, and if it could help me,” Johnson said. “And it has.”
Making a move
Basketball was Johnson’s first love, and he grew up in Richmond, Va., emulating everything his older brothers, Robert, Yahkee and Anthony did, whether it was taking layups in the nearby elementary school or choosing to participate in other sports, such as football, baseball or track and field.
But as the youngest, Johnson quickly found that he didn’t want to ask for help from his brothers. Instead, he had to learn from them and put the lessons into action.
“I was always picking up things from them, secondhand,” Johnson said. “I wanted to play with them, without them babysitting me and that always challenged me to pick up things, fast, so that they wouldn’t have to tell me as much.”
After his junior year at L.C. Bird, Johnson didn’t have a lot of college scholarship offers. He opted to reclassify and transferred to Blue Ridge School, an all-boys school in central Virginia about 90 miles from home that presented him with a structured schedule and all new people.
Johnson made a quick impression. Toward the end of his first year, his classmates and faculty members elected him as a senior prefect, one of the most prestigious nominations for a student.
“Students have to apply for that and write an essay as to why they should be considered for the position,” said Cade Lemcke, the Blue Ridge boys basketball coach. “For him to be elected to that, after being in school for less than a year, and then to see him be a three-year-captain at Canisius, that’s not surprising to know about Malik, and who he is. It’s a testament to his character and his personality.”
Becoming a leader
Johnson originally signed with Canisius as part of Jim Baron’s recruiting class in the spring 2016. Baron, however, retired in May 2016, and Johnson considered reopening his recruitment.
Then, he got a call from Reggie Witherspoon, who was named Canisius’ coach eight days after Baron announced his retirement.
Witherspoon knew it was important to show Johnson that he wanted him in the incoming freshman class. The message had to be authentic. As the son of a college basketball coach, Johnson knew the nuances of recruiting. Johnson’s father, Robert, is an assistant at Virginia Union in Richmond, Va.
“We had a good conversation about his vision for me and his vision for the program,” Johnson said. “I believed it. It was also really late in the game, and I thought about it. I stuck it out and knew that when I went to Canisius, I was going to fight it out for playing time.”
When Johnson got to campus, Witherspoon issued Johnson a directive: Be a leader.
At times, it was a lonely path, because not everyone wanted to follow Johnson’s lead. But Johnson also knew there were things he needed to do to improve himself to make a stronger case that he should be followed.
“He’s used to being a leader, and you could tell he was serious about it,” Witherspoon said. “He wants accountability. He’s also big on recognizing when someone else is serious about something, and when they’re not.”
Over the next four years, Witherspoon has continued to empower him, Johnson said. He likes to be challenged, a quality that came from growing up with his older brothers.
“By doing so, I was ahead of the game early,” Johnson said. “Each year, I’ve grown, in a sense where I’ve taken on more responsibility. Each year, it was more off-the-court things I’ve taken on. Like, this year, it’s making sure everyone is where they need to be, that everybody is eating like they’re supposed to be eating, not getting into trouble, having fun but still prioritizing.
"It’s about growing, every year, and taking on more responsibilities.”
If you drove through the city at any point in October or November, you probably saw Johnson on billboards on Route 33 and on Interstate 190 going into downtown, advertising Canisius’ game at KeyBank Center against St. Bonaventure. Johnson was the obvious choice to be featured.
— Canisius Basketball (@Griffs_MBB) November 6, 2019
“He’s a really good leader,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel told reporters after Canisius lost, 87-79, on Dec. 30. “It’s the first time we’ve played against a team this year where, just about every play we called out, he’s calling it, and he’s telling his guys where to go.
“It’s rare, for any kid, especially a kid in college, to have the ability to do that and run his team.”
Johnson said he watches a lot of game film on his own, stopping and replaying the other teams' plays and how they run them.
"I’m visualizing what I need to do and where I need to be and where I need my team to be," he said.
What Johnson refers to as a change in mindset took some selflessness. It took some sacrifice. But it took Johnson to a new level, athletically and personally.
“We’ve all been there,” Witherspoon said. “We know we need to do something, but we’ll fight doing it because there’s more fun if we don’t. Malik didn’t fight it. You could see him realize, ‘OK, if you want to accomplish all of this, here’s how you can do it.’ And he didn’t fight it. He said, ‘let’s do it.’ He embraced it.”
As Johnson prepared for his senior year, Witherspoon issued him another directive: Push your teammates, but understand what motivates them. Don’t limit yourself to one role, and do what you can to win, and to help the Griffs win.
“That’s really what Malik Johnson is, the ultimate competitor,” Witherspoon said. “He doesn’t miss a practice, he doesn’t miss a game.
"He’s Mr. Consistent.”