Malcolm Johnson’s story is one of perseverance and always staying ready. It’s the story of a young student-athlete taking a long and uncertain road to get a Division I college basketball scholarship.

A former star at Centennial High School in Bakersfield, Johnson went on to become an established player at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills, a standout at City College of San Francisco, and now a soon-to-be emerging player at UC Davis, where he expects to sign a National Letter of Intent in April.

Basketball followed Johnson, not the other way around. And he garnered some well-earned hardware once the 2019 season was said and done.

It wasn’t exactly how he may have drawn it up or even envisioned it unfolding. But Johnson certainly isn’t apologizing about his soon-to-be stomping grounds, either.

“It means an awful lot,” Johnson said of earning a spot with a Division I college basketball program. “I just feel like I put in a lot of time, a lot of hard work to get here. I don’t take it for granted. I feel like I deserve to be here.”

Path to the next level

Johnson readily admits his journey is far from over. And he may just know from personal experience.

Before this year, he was on the verge of simply not playing basketball anymore.

After a successful redshirt freshman season at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Johnson and his girlfriend were expecting a child. He elected to move to Northern California to join his parents, who recently relocated. Johnson said his train of thought was to be close to loved ones, finish school, and start work to support his family. His college basketball career, in his mind, was over.

Not long after, however, he got a phone call from former Centennial teammate Aleczander Check — a player at City College of San Francisco — who implored Johnson to join the Rams.

Another phone call came from CCSF head coach Justin Labagh, who encouraged Johnson to come on board as well.

Johnson’s father, Michael, and high school coach Hernan Santiago were also involved in getting him back on the court.

“(Labagh) said, ‘hey, we’ve seen you play. We think you can go Division I,”’ Johnson said. “Not only can I get school done and over with, but I can also play with one of my brothers again. Pretty much a no-lose situation.”

Johnson would open eyes, leading the Rams to a 31-2 record and an appearance in the CCCAA State Championship game this season. He averaged 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He shot 58 percent from the floor and 39 percent from the 3-point line.

Johnson was named Northern California’s Co-Player of the Year and won MVP of the Coast Conference North division. This while playing for a San Francisco program that’s had its fair share of success over the years — three state titles, two runner-up finishes and plenty of high-end prospects come through during Labagh’s 17-year tenure.

The head coach said while Johnson’s stature — listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds — doesn’t necessarily give him a defined position on the Division I level, his versatility is intriguing.

“He can handle it, he can shoot it a little. Rebound the ball. A little of everything,” Labagh said.

“College coaches may say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to play this kid, but I’ve got to have him.’”

A look back

Johnson was a very good high school player on a very good Centennial team. An imposing wide receiver on the football field, Johnson elected to focus solely on basketball entering his junior year with the Golden Hawks. He became a double-double machine, averaging 15 points and over 10 rebounds per contest for a team that had four players average double-figure points per game.

The Golden Hawks won consecutive Southwest Yosemite League titles and advanced to the Central Section semifinals both years. Johnson was named BVarsity All-Area Player of the Year as a junior, while holding down a 3.5 grade point average.

Still, Johnson was primarily a post presence for the Golden Hawks — a fearless rebounder who could drive to the rim and provide toughness inside. His perimeter game was limited, which may have factored in him being under-recruited — no Division I offers came to Johnson as his high school career closed.

With that said, Cal State Dominguez Hills — a Division II program in Southern California — came calling and Johnson eagerly accepted the overture.

“I definitely didn’t think I was a D-I player. I was grateful for the offer from Dominguez Hills,” he readily admitted. “There were no super-high expectations from myself.”

Johnson would redshirt as a college freshman, which was a turning point. Living down the street from the gym and having just two classes a day, he honed his skills on the basketball court.

“The best decision I made in my career,” Johnson pointed out. 

His overall basketball IQ improved dramatically, and Johnson adapted to the speed of the game. His ball handling and shooting made strides as well.

“I was lucky enough to have a great coaching staff that really decided they wanted to help,” he said. “Worked with me every day, developed my game.”

The following season Johnson was formidable. He started 24 of 29 games during the 2017-18 campaign, averaging 12.7 points and 9.0 rebounds. He shot 52 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3-point territory. When the year ended, he was the only freshman to make All-Conference.

When Johnson took the court for CCSF, his skill-set continued to expand. He handled the ball more frequently, and his outside shot had to be respected.

“The gameplan at City is that I do everything. Bring the ball up, shoot the 3. All of it,” he said.

Still, Johnson’s strengths remain inside the 3-point line. He’s forever been a power player, who rebounds the ball at a high rate and flashes high hops for a slam dunk.

“That’s always been a huge part of my game. That’s something that will never leave,” Johnson said of his rebounding prowess. “Always in there trying to grab rebounds. Offensive and defensive.”

Johnson figures he’ll take the court as a small forward at UC Davis.

“I’m coming in there to play defense, rebound the ball,” he said.

Mature beyond his years

Johnson has undoubtedly faced adversity.

He’s a young father who’s traveled the state in search of the right fit from a basketball and lifestyle standpoint.

He’s one of seven siblings and his half-brother, Brandon Robinson, was recently convicted in a high-profile criminal case in Bakersfield. Robinson, a former star football player in his own right at Centennial, was sentenced in October to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 19 years, for sexually assaulting three victims in three separate incidents in 2017, including one inside a Bakersfield College restroom.

Asked how he dealt with his brother's situation while still flourishing on and off the basketball court, Johnson let out a soft groan before giving pause.

“I don’t want to comment on him,” he said. “I love him with all my heart and I’d do anything for him.”

Labagh said Johnson commuted an hour and 45 minutes every day to CCSF’s campus. The coach said he made concessions for Johnson to be with the program, in part because of the young man’s character.

“With a wife and baby at home. There were a lot of sleepy mornings,” Labagh said with a laugh.

“He never complained. He was focused. For his age, he’s a lot more mature than a lot of 21 year olds I know.”

Labagh would point out that Johnson’s next stop could very well end with a degree at UC Davis, and some Division I college basketball under his belt.

“Great story, a success story,” was how Labagh framed it. “The whole plan worked out. Sometimes they don’t….You picked the right kid.”

Teddy Feinberg can be reached at 661-395-7324. Follow him on Twitter: @TeddyFeinberg

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