Most freshmen take a redshirt year, some play minimal minutes and very few play valuable roles.
The latter is what Elon University head women’s basketball coach Charlotte Smith has done with her talented freshman center Malaya Johnson.
Although she had some growing pains, as all freshmen do in their first taste of regular-season game action, Johnson’s talent was obvious in her play in the post.
Johnson was Elon’s second-highest scorer in the team’s season-opening victory against Anderson University. She spent the majority of the 20-plus minutes she was on the floor dominating the paint on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
On offense, she displayed an impressive array of skills, including the ability to turn and bank hook shots and layups over both shoulders and with both hands. She beat her opponent off the dribble and got physical underneath to vie for important offensive and defensive rebounds, which led to second-chance points and maybe possessions.
“I feel like when my teammates give me the ball in the paint, they’re relying on me to do something with it,” Johnson said. “Either find the open man or go to work and finish. When I get the ball, that’s my goal: to finish.”
Once she got in a groove and was able to see the ball go through the net early on, Johnson relaxed and loosened up. Her confidence skyrocketed, and she continued to contribute on offense and defense.
That continued in Elon’s second game of the season against the U.S. Naval Academy, when Johnson tallied six points and five rebounds in 19 minutes.
“Being a freshman, at the beginning of the game I was really nervous,” Johnson said. “[But] as [the game] goes on and I run more and they feed me the ball, I get more comfortable.”
Her mindset was simple. If her teammates were confident enough in her to keep feeding her the ball in the post, she needed to take advantage of her opportunities and finish her looks. That was what she was put in the game to do.
But it wasn’t just her success on the offensive end that stood out. Johnson secured three key defensive rebounds that ended vital Anderson possessions as the Trojans tried to claw their way back into the game.
She also had a block and altered a handful of other shots that would otherwise have been easy buckets at the rim but instead resulted in wild shots as the Trojans tried to avoid her menacing presence in the post.
Elon head coach Charlotte Smith said both Johnson and fellow freshman guard Shay Burnett have the opportunity to play big roles this year.
“They’ve picked up the concepts [and] our system fairly quickly,” she said. “That’s afforded them opportunities to get in there and play.”
If Johnson can continue to flash her potential while developing and sharpening her skillset, she will likely see her share of playing time while the team searches for reliable scorers to complement their more experienced teammates.