Kaylee Johnson a rare Wyoming gem
During a game in which she blocked 15 shots against Billings (Mont.) last season, Kaylee Johnson approached her coach with a sly grin.
"I like playing these teams who don't know who I am," Johnson said.
Johnson, a 6-foot-3 senior forward for Natrona County (Casper, Wyo.), may be flying under the radar right now, but the Stanford recruit has the talent and will to change that over the next several years.
Part of the reason Johnson's profile isn't higher -- she is now up to No. 30 in the espnW HoopGurlz prospect rankings for the 2014 class -- is that she lives in Wyoming, the least populous state in the nation.
Johnson has had to play for Colorado and Montana AAU teams the past three years just to find better competition. That meant that her mother, Sonjia Johnson, would drive four hours up to Fort Collins, Colo., to take her daughter to a weekly AAU practice and four hours back that night.
To get her to the Montana practices and games, Sonjia would put her daughter on a plane.
How rare is a talent like Johnson in a state with as small a population as Wyoming?
Natrona County coach Doug Diehl said that, on average, only two or three girls earn Division I basketball scholarships out of the entire state each year -- and none quite like Johnson.
"I've been coaching since 1989, and she is by far best player we've had," Diehl said. "Six-foot-two kids with her combination of athleticism and mental toughness don't just walk into your office every day."
Johnson wasn't always this good.
One of her best friends, 5-5 senior guard Lexie Switzer, sometimes teases Johnson about being the worst player on their fifth-grade club team.
"Then she worked hard and got a lot better, obviously," Switzer said. "She spends a ridiculous amount of hours in the gym. She is the hardest worker on our team, without a doubt."
Johnson's work ethic is such that she refuses to end her practice day until she has made 50 3-pointers and 200 free throws.
Diehl said that when Johnson is working out, her teammates tend to stand around and watch her.
"She gets after it every day in the weight room," Diehl said. "She has plates on there like the guys."
That attitude transfers to the court, where Johnson usually arrives early to practice and goes through a variety of post moves before her teammates have even picked up a ball.
"Kaylee is dripping in sweat," Diehl said, "and her teammates are still talking to each other on the side."
Diehl said the first few college coaches who recruited her were "crossing their fingers that -- being from Wyoming -- she would not be found."
That changed when Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer saw her at a Phoenix tournament this past summer.
"I've never had a coach who saw her play not be wowed," Diehl said. "She has incredible timing on blocked shots. And she never gives up on a play, especially a rebound -- even if it is out of her area."
Breaking the mold
Johnson is from Casper, population 60,000. Her mother said she is regularly featured in the local newspaper and has become a bit of a celebrity around town.
"Casper is not tiny, but it has a small-town atmosphere," Sonjia Johnson said. "Everyone does seem to know Kaylee, and when we go out, people ask her about college."
When she went to Stanford on her unofficial recruiting visit, Johnson got a lot of questions about Wyoming.
"People think of riding horses with tumbleweed flying by," Johnson said. "But it's just normal."
Wyoming is known for the great outdoors, but Johnson has never gone hunting. She has been fishing several times, but she's never even gotten a bite.
She's much more successful academically, sporting an unweighted 4.0 GPA. She has never received a grade lower than an A.
"I don't think it's that hard getting A's in high school -- I think some kids are just slacking," Johnson said. "College is probably going to hit me hard, though."
She's passed just about every test so far -- in the classroom and on the court.
Last year, she repeated as Wyoming's Gatorade Player of the Year after she led the state in scoring, blocked shots and field goal percentage.
She averaged 21.9 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.2 blocks, 2.8 steals and 2.6 assists while shooting 60 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately for Johnson, she has yet to win a state title, getting closest during her sophomore season, when Natrona County lost in the championship game to Laramie.
"It was the worst feeling," Johnson said. "It sounds ridiculous, but I cried for a whole day, and I had a knot in my stomach for a week.
"I'm almost out of time. I feel like, 'OK, no pressure. If I do everything right, it will come.' "
It won't be easy. Unlike what happened in Montana, Johnson is a well-known player in Wyoming.
Wary of her presence inside, Wyoming teams tend to shoot almost exclusively from the perimeter when Johnson is guarding the paint, thus reducing her blocked-shot opportunities.
"Or they try to pump-fake me 15 times," Johnson said. "It's annoying."
A new chapter
There might be a different emotion once Johnson arrives on the Stanford campus: confusion.
There she'll meet up with an unrelated teammate with a very similar name -- Kailee Johnson of Portland, Ore., who is a freshman this year.
Kaylee Johnson said she doesn't know Kailee Johnson, but she is sure the two will be fast friends by this time next year.
Switzer is sure of that, too. She said her friend is a true leader who is destined for success.
"I know she will go far because she refuses to be anything but the best," Switzer said. "Even if she is not playing right away, she will work hard and get there."
And that's an attribute that will certainly be missed by Diehl.
"When she graduates," the coach said, "it will be with a tear in my eye."