There was a time when Jayla Johnson was the tallest girl in her class.
Those days are long past – but the Wheaton Warrenville South senior continues to stand out.
The 5-foot-8 Johnson is in her fourth season as the Tigers’ starting center. Despite her modest stature, she regularly outperforms opponents as much as six inches taller than her.
Johnson is a three-time all-conference performer who consistently leads the Tigers in scoring and rebounding. She’s averaging 15 points and six boards this season as the Tigers are off to an 16-3 start. WW South is two game behind Naperville Central in the DuPage Valley Conference race.
“WhenI first started playing basketball, I was always taller than everyone else,”Johnson said. “So [center] is where I was. That was my natural habitat.”
It still is, though not for much longer. WW South coach Rob Kroehnke, who has never had a center as short as Johnson, said Johnson would be a Division I recruit if she were 6-foot.
Instead, Johnson will be the rare high school center who will play guard in college. Those guard skills already are on display.
Johnson had nine points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in a 48-21 win over crosstown rival Wheaton North on Dec. 21. She scored one basket in the paint, another on a pull-up jumper and a third on a power drive.
“We knew North was really going to sag on her, so the idea was to get Jayla more movement and she’s a great release valve,” Kroehnke said. “She can handle the basketball and I thought the best play of the game was the steal she made in the post in the second half.”
Johnson’s teammates love playing with someone who has the hands of a guard, the strength of a post player and the competitive desire of a winner.
“We look to get her the ball as much as we can,” Tigers junior guard Mira Emma said. “Her left hand is phenomenal. Not too many people can stop her.
“It’s awesome to have. She’s such a great teammate, too.”
During Kroehnke’s tenure, the Tigers have become renowned for their defense and rebounding prowess. Johnson epitomizes both.
“I just try to box out and get in front of them so I can get the ball and go up and get easy points,” Johnson said.
It takes fortitude to outplay and outwit larger opponents. Johnson’s teammates say she has that in spades.
“Mentally she is so strong and she’s amazing inside and outside of the paint,” Tigers junior Mackenzie Stebbins said. “She’s just an awesome player.
“We tell her to shoot, but she doesn’t. She’s an amazing shooter and needs to shoot more.”
Johnson will eventually. A few small Division III schools have expressed interest in Johnson, who plays both guard and center for her Lady Lightning AAU team.
“I’m prepared to be playing on the perimeter,” said Johnson, who plans to study nursing and doesn’t worry about her size. “I’m content where I am. Whatever offers I get is for me, so I’m not worried about [being overlooked].”
One place Johnson will never be overlooked is WW South.
“It will be interesting to see where she ends up on all our record lists,” Kroehnkesaid. “She has been very consistent over all four years. Now she’s taking more of a vocal leadership role.”