Ian Billings/Staff Photographer

Jamal Johnson, who created a college-level basketball playbook in middle school, is No. 6 among Big West players, with a 1.90-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Aryn Sanderson
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“There’s dying.”

He raises his hand horizontally to eye level.

“Then…”

He quickly moves his hand down toward his chin, pushing down the winter air for emphasis.

“There’s losing.”

For point guard Jamal Johnson, there is almost nothing worse than a loss.

“I don’t know how anyone could accept losing,” the 6-foot, 177-pound senior said. “I think of losing like it’s the worst thing. … After a loss, I just don’t want to talk to anybody. I play back every single play of the game, what possession did we lose it on, what happened for us to lose this game like we did.”

In the span of a 45-minute conversation — where everything from his game ritual of wearing his socks inside-out to his tribal membership as a Wampanoag Native American was discussed — Johnson said the word “losing” at least once every two minutes.

And it’s unfortunate, because the Mustangs have been doing just that.

They’re 4-9 entering their Big West Conference opener against Hawaii on Thursday after a tough non-conference schedule.

But, surprisingly, Johnson doesn’t seem worried.

“That’s exactly what we expected when coach asked us,” Johnson said, “He said, you know, ‘We’re gonna schedule these games. We could be 2-10. What do you guys think?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to be 9-1 and come into conference and wonder what’s going on. I’d rather be 2-10 and have learned an immense amount about our team and go into conference coming out the gates knowing what our team can produce.’”

Johnson is averaging 5.2 points per game on the year, fifth best for the Mustangs.

But shooting isn’t his game.

Johnson is No. 11 among Division I players, with a 2.75-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I’ve never been a phenomenal scorer who puts up 25 points in a game,” he said, “I would feel like I was letting the team down if I scored 25 because that means someone else is scoring five when they could be hitting way more.”

Instead, Johnson plays as a pass-first point guard, leading the team with 38 assists.

Johnson is, his teammate and roommate Chris Eversley said, “the reason for the team’s successes.”

Johnson’s drive to win fuels the team, he said.

“That’s one thing he and I have in common — we’re hypercompetitive,” Eversley said. “We get pretty competitive just playing Xbox at home together, or off the court, like trying to get to the restaurant first. It sounds childish, but between him and me, it’s always a competition.”

That drive makes Johnson “a good morale man, on and off the court,” Eversley said.

Along with his competitive attitude, Johnson’s strengths as an on-ball defender with quick feet and natural athleticism help compensate for his size; despite being only 6 feet tall, Johnson is still Cal Poly’s No. 1 player in athletic testing for quickness and vertical jump.

Most importantly, Johnson prides himself on his “basketball IQ” — his understanding of the plays, the game and his teammates.

“He’s kind of the conductor of the orchestra,” Eversley said.

Started from the bottom

Johnson considers himself the “extension of coach on the floor,” he said, and he speaks about “Coach,” head coach Joe Callero, with an air of admiration.

The feeling is mutual.

“The point guard on a basketball team and the head coach have to be thinking on the same page, and Jamal now after four years can know what I’m thinking before I say it and vice versa,” Callero said. “It’s a position of trust.”

Johnson has “paid full price” for that position, though, Callero said.

“He paid his dues … and it’s a real testament to his perseverance,” Callero said, “He has a toughness and a loyalty to the cause at hand.”

Although Johnson has started every game so far in the non-conference season, before his junior year the majority of his time was spent on the bench.

Callero used to give Johnson a hard time, Eversley said.

“Now, as a senior, he sees that coach put him in the position to be one of the best point guards, in my opinion, in college basketball,” he said.

So far this year, Johnson has shot 41 percent from the floor. But back in 2011, he shot at a 26 percent clip. And he finished last season with 122 assists, 92 more than his freshman year.

“I started from the bottom,” Johnson said. “There were certain instances my freshman year, where I felt like, ‘I just can’t do anything right, I can’t dribble the ball without (Callero) yelling at me, what’s going on here?’”

Looking back on those times, Johnson is thankful Callero pushed him.

“There was no way I would be able to be the player I am without him forcing it out of me and demanding it from me,” he said.

Looking to the future

Now, along with earning a master’s degree, joining the police force or even professional play, Johnson is looking at coaching as a career option for his future.

His father, Gary, says Jamal has shown the necessary skills since a young age, calling his son “a natural-born leader.”

Despite Jamal’s outgoing nature, he is a private person, but has always been one of those “people that other people always gravitated to,” Gary said.

“I remember in the seventh grade, he had just went to this new basketball team, and the coach was an OK coach, but Jamal spent about three days drawing up plays for the basketball team — what player was supposed to do what, who was supposed to pass to who, what direction to go in — and I’m still trying to get that book back from the coach,” Gary said. “As a seventh-grader, he did that, and it’s probably something a high school or college coach would have drawn up for his team.”

One thing is for certain, though. If Johnson were to coach, he’d coach to win.

“Why,” he asked, “would anyone want to lose?”

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