It was getting late in Titan Gym — a place the Cal Poly men’s basketball team hadn’t won in three years.
And when David Nwaba drove the lane Thursday trying to put the Mustangs up by four in the final seconds, the Mustangs sophomore let out his frustration in the timeout huddle after the shot rolled harmlessly off the rim, giving Cal State Fullerton a last chance at the game-winner.
That’s when point guard Jamal Johnson stepped up to ply a maturity and confidence that’s grown noticeably in his senior season.
“Jamal was the first one saying, ‘Alright. It’s alright. We’ll get them back on defense,’ ” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “We wouldn’t have seen that last year. I don’t know if we would have seen that at the start of this year, that, ‘Hey, you’re the voice of the team.’
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“I think it emerged most in the second or third week of the season. ‘I’m a senior. I have paid my dues. Damn it, step up and take the reins.’ ”
Johnson’s upgraded leadership skills have also come with improved play. He scored a game-high 12 points and was the featured post-game interviewee on the ESPN3 broadcast as Cal Poly held on for a 58-56 victory over the Titans. Johnson has particularly picked up his game in the Big West Conference season.
A big key to Cal Poly’s 4-1 conference start, Johnson is averaging 9.4 points with 20 assists and just eight turnovers in the five games. He’s averaging just one turnover per game in the past four, and he had a career-high 15 points in a Jan. 9 home victory over Hawaii.
The biggest contribution might be his timely and accurate 3-point shooting, which appears to be improving with senior sharpshooter Kyle Odister leaving the lineup with a foot injury and sophomore Reese Morgan still a ways off from returning from a knee injury.
Odister, the team leader with 38 3-pointers, missed the victory in Fullerton and tentative plans will hold him out at least until next Saturday’s game against conference-leading UC Irvine.
Morgan has missed the entire year recovering from offseason surgery and will not play at UC Riverside tonight. He plans to begin practicing next week but will be gradually eased into the lineup when he’s able, Callero said.
That leaves the Mustangs without an outside shooting specialist in the starting lineup for now, but Johnson is proving capable if left open.
Thus far, he is shooting selectively, but he is also having the best success of his career.
Johnson is sinking 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, and in conference play alone, that mark has risen to 61.5 percent (8 for 13). In the past three games, he’s 6 for 8.
Those numbers represent a big leap from his junior season, when Johnson connected on 30 percent from beyond the arc. He was only shooting 36.4 percent on field goals overall, and his efficiency was the main reason he was displaced in the starting lineup after 18 games by a steady Drake U’u.
In response, Johnson set aside plenty of extra practice time working on his shot in the offseason.
“I just think it’s a confidence issue,” Johnson said. “It’s not like I was a terrible shooter over the past four years. I think it’s the confidence my team has in me. They’ve seen me hit shots in practice. They see that I work on it, and the fact that they go to me in clutch moments of the game, if they have confidence in me, I don’t see why I can’t have confidence in myself.”
It was a confidence Johnson had to work hard to earn.
The San Antonio product was thrust into the starting lineup his freshman year. He scored eight points in his college debut as expected starter Amaurys Fermin was not able to academically complete his transfer in time for the season.
But Johnson had a long way to go in becoming the coach on the court he’s considered today. Callero, a former point guard who helped lead his Central Washington team to back-to-back NAIA championship games as a player, is notoriously tough on his young point guards.
“When we were younger, like freshmen and sophomores,” senior forward Chris Eversley said, “Jamal used to get yelled at a lot because he was just still learning, and it was like, ‘Man, coach is going to be tough on the point guards.’
“You can tell that he has like an insane obsession with making them the best they can possibly be because they’re the head of the snake on the team.”
Johnson said Callero never gave him a break, and not just on the court. He was hard on him in team meetings. At the airport. Via text.
The coach likens the importance and responsibilities of the point guard position to that of an NFL quarterback and expects no less than expert precision.
“I send him text messages,” Callero said. “ ‘You have surgery tomorrow.’ The point guard’s a surgeon. You have to go into every game with a surgeon concentration.
“It can be overwhelming for them. They kind of get sad eyes like, ‘Is there anything I’m doing right?’
“ ‘Yeah, you did one thing right, but here’s 15 things you have to do better.’ ”
Johnson, Callero said, is to the point where he’s doing 10 things right.
The point guard is certainly more comfortable relating to the coach now. Johnson said he watches extra film with Callero so he can get a good grasp on what the practice emphasis will be for the week.
He relishes the leadership role. The prodding that made him squirm in his first few seasons has conditioned him to put the mental conditioning into perspective for this year’s crop of freshmen point guards, Ridge Shipley and Markel Leonard.
Over the years, Johnson has quietly picked up his own tips from former teammates. He adopted the preparation habits of Fermin and David Hanson, the dedication to shooting practice of Dylan Royer and motivational tactics from Will Taylor.
With leadership and consistent play, Johnson has earned the ultimate trust from Callero and teammates, but that only means the bar has been raised.
“I would even go back to my junior and sophomore year,” Johnson said. “I was still learning the relationship that coach wanted. I was still in a listening mode. I still needed to get all the information I needed, and I still don’t know enough.”