From one court to another, Malaya Johnson has added an undeniable spark to the Elon University women’s basketball team.
After playing basketball and volleyball in high school, Johnson decided to focus on basketball has had an immediate impact on the team’s performance, averaging 8.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. She’s made 56 percent of her shots from the floor and leads the team with 21 blocks.
“She adds a lot of things both offensively and defensively,” said senior guard Zora Stephenson. “She adds to the team’s basketball IQ. It’s nice when a freshman can come in and be a student of the game.”
Originally from Mount Airy Johnson came from a basketball family. Her father was a coach during her little league days. “All of my brothers and sisters played,” she said. “I just continued to play because I liked it a lot.”
As she grew older, she found herself playing both basketball and volleyball. She held a key role in her high school’s 2012 Volleyball State Championship and was even named MVP. She was also named to the all conference team three times.
She excelled at basketball, too. Her high school, North Surry, won three consecutive conference championships during her tenure, and she was selected to the all conference team all three times.
Johnson said mental toughness and good footwork are important in volleyball, and both helped her make the transition from two sports to one. Johnson knew she would have to choose one sport over the other when she came to college.
“It was a really tough decision because I loved volleyball,” she said. “At the end of the day, I just felt that basketball was my passion.”
Johnson visited a lot of schools and was a late commit to Elon.
“My mom was really big on visiting everywhere that I had the opportunity to visit,” she said. “She said, ‘You’ll know where you want to go when you’re there.’ Elon is where I enjoyed myself the most.”
When Johnson showed interest in Elon, the coaching staff knew they had to do everything they could to recruit her.
“We knew out of high school that she was a very talented player who could come in and contribute immediately,” said Elon head coach Charlotte Smith. “We’re excited to have her for our team.”
Her teammates also noticed her talent and she quickly became an integral part of the Phoenix game plan.
“Malaya adds a big offensive threat,” said sophomore guard Lauren Brown. “Defensive players are always paying attention to her, and that just opens up things for other players on our team.”
Johnson stands at 6’3,” a height which often attracts double teams. But she isn’t one to back down from a challenge. Her competitive nature has given her an extra advantage, especially in finishing plays. Smith finds it one of Johnson’s greatest assets.
“She has a great level of confidence,” Smith said. “She’s done a good job of getting a solid move down, and does a great job finishing.”
Johnson has been a key piece of the offense, scoring 22 points against Campbell University and 18 points against Lenoir-Rhyne University.
“It feels really good and makes me feel like I’m contributing,” Johnson said. “That’s what I feel like I need to do.”
When she finds her rhythm on the court, she can be difficult to contain. Most of Johnson’s key points have come under duress while around the rim, and her scrappiness has paid off.
“Malaya is very solid down low,” Smith said. “She’s done a phenomenal job of scoring inside.”
Johnson joins reigning Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Jenifer Rhodes at center. It’s a powerful combo that has led the attack in Elon’s 11-6 start this year.
“She adds more depth at the [center] position,” said Smith. “That’s been one of the key tactics for our success.”
Johnson strives to improve her game, whether it be shooting or footwork. She has worked hard to strengthen her finishing move, which has made her a handful for opposing defenses.
“She’s always asking the most questions,” Stephenson said. “She really wants to learn, which is the most important thing.”
Basketball and volleyball are not Johnson’s only talents, though. She is a member of Elon’s gospel choir and plans to earn a degree in psychology.
“She’s a very fun person to be around,” Brown said with a smile. “She’s always being silly and laughing, and she can sing really well.”
Johnson brings a positive energy to the locker room and has had no trouble bonding with her teammates at Elon.
“She’s super nice and always has a great attitude,” Stephenson said. “She’s just a great all-around person.”
Though she has had an impressive start to her collegiate career, Johnson has no plans of slowing down any time soon. She hopes to keep the momentum going for the rest of her time with the Phoenix.
“My old coach always told me, ‘Your best basketball is still ahead of you,’” she said. “I hope that I continue to do well and do the best I can.”