By Torsheta Jackson

Murrah High coach J. J. Washington still remembers the phone call two years ago from his sophomore basketball player, Avaughn Johnson. Johnson had found his mother unresponsive that morning. 

Murrah had played a game at Yazoo County High School. The team had gotten in late after a 66-62 loss and Johnson had come in and gone to bed. The next morning, he showered and dressed for school as usual. On his way out of the house to catch the bus, he realized that his mother was not up which was unusual. He went in to check on her, realized she was unconscious and called the ambulance. Angela Johnson did not recover. 

“Avaughn called me that morning,” Washington said. “I walked into the gym and a couple of the players said they had heard that Avaughn’s mom passed. Then he called me and told me what had happened. We all met as a team and he told me that he wanted to make sure that he was at practice and so he came to practice.”

Johnson’s father passed away when he was three years old and has lived with his aunts since his mother’s death. His grandmother, Diane Bradfield, has been a constant presence. Still, the teenager understands his mother’s expectations and seeks to honor them daily.

“I lost my mother at 15,” Johnson said. “It made me more of an independent and motivated person. It pushed me to keep going hard every day so that I could earn a free way to college and say that I did it on my own.”

He has made good on that expectation of himself. Johnson holds a 4.2 GPA and a 26 on the ACT.

“My mother was very big on education over sports,” Johnson said. “She was also big on respect. When she passed, I started taking my education more seriously and I started taking my game more seriously. I knew that those were my two options to get to school for free.”

Photo by Hays Collins

Johnson has also worked to improve his basketball ability. Washington described Johnson as a timid and underdeveloped player when he first joined the varsity. As a sophomore, Washington only averaged less than 6 points and 3 rebounds per game. Washington encouraged Johnson to work with trainers, continue to play as much as possible, and push himself on the court and in the weight room.

Jackson State men’s basketball coach Wayne Brent met Johnson around that same time. Brent’s son, Cam, and Johnson were teammates on Rodney Hood’s MEBO AAU team. Coach Brent knew from his more than 30 years of coaching experience that the young guard had promise.

“He was long and lanky, and he hadn’t tapped into his potential,” Brent said. “I told my son, Cam, that Avaughn was going to be pretty good once he figured it out. He had long arms, long legs, and big feet. You could tell by his makeup that he has a basketball body. He just had to catch up with it. I saw the projection then that if he stayed in the gym, kept working and got into a situation where someone helps him and has the support from his family that he would end up being a pretty good basketball player.”

Coach Brent was correct. Johnson, who signed with Brent’s Tigers in November, has emerged from the shadows as arguably one of the best players in the state. The 6-foot-6 guard plays hard and physical. He is tough and a vocal leader on the court. However, you won’t find him on many of the state’s top player lists. His Twitter hashtag #notaDandy tells everyone how he feels about being overlooked.

“He didn’t make anyone’s all-metro team last year,” Washington said. “He didn’t make anyone’s all-state team last year. Coming into this year, he really wanted to be a Dandy. I told him it was going to be tough, and he didn’t make it. I think that one of the things that has motivated him is that he is really close with two or three of them. Now his goal is to show everyone, ‘I should’ve been a Dandy. Y’all are still overlooking me and not giving me the respect that I deserve. I’ll go out and make you give me that respect by my play on the court.”

People have definitely started to take notice. In a game against Greenville Weston earlier this season, Johnson scored 52 points. He is the first Murrah player to score at least 52 points since Ronnie Henderson scored 58 against Amite County on Dec. 28, 1992. Only one other Murrah player, former NBA and Alabama star James “Hollywood” Robinson, scored more than 52. Robinson scored 66 points in 1988. Johnson hit a three-point buzzer beater to beat Petal in the JPS Holiday Christmas Tournament. Johnson scored 36 points in a losing effort against defending MHSAA Class 6A state champion Clinton Friday.

Murrah faces another defending champion Monday in the Rumble in the South at Mississippi College in Clinton. Murrah faces defending MAIS Overall Tournament champion Madison-Ridgeland Academy and Josh Hubbard, considered one of the top junior guards in the country. MRA’s only loss in Mississippi to MHSAA Class 6A state champion contender Biloxi. 

Johnson is averaging 28.6 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks per game.

“I think Avaughn is the best, most overlooked player in the state,” Washington said. “That’s no slight to the other players in the state, but I think he is the most productive player and does more for his team than any player in the state.”

Johnson’s production has paid off when he was named to the Mississippi roster for the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Game.

Murrah is bouncing back from a rough season. Due to COVID restrictions, the team was not able to play a full schedule. They finished the season with a record of 6-7. Even during that shortened season, Johnson averaged 16.3 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists per game. 

Now Johnson has the goal of a championship in mind. During summer, he encouraged his teammates to come to the gym on all optional practice days even offering them a ride if needed. He is at every workout, leads every drill and pushes his teammates daily. 

Photo by Hays Collins

It has paid off early in the season. The Mustangs are 16-4 and ranked ninth in the state. Murrah has a core group of major contributors. Seniors Emmett Marshall and Jamar Esco both play big roles on the court. They are joined by junior Courterius Scott is averaging 19.1 points per game and Javin Cooper averaging 12 points a game.

“I’m praying that we continue to have success. We are in a tough part of our season,” Washington said. “But the difference between us and the teams we have played is that we have Avaughn Johnson, and they don’t.”

Johnson will follow in his mother’s footsteps when he steps on campus at JSU. Angela graduated with a bachelor’s in social work from the university where her son plans to major in biology.

“I always said that I wanted to go to a historically black college or university,” Johnson said. “When I was weighing all my options, I wanted to be close to home and to my grandmother. My mother went to Jackson State.”

Brent is excited about what Johnson can bring to the Tigers.

“Avaughn is a guard so he can play several positions,” Brent said. “He is an athletic basketball player that can do a little bit of everything. Avaughn can shoot the ball. He can handle the ball. He can defend a couple of different positions. Avaughn is a position less kid because of his size and his range.”

Brent also recognizes the positive influence that Johnson can bring to the team off the court.

“The thing that stands out with Avaughn is that with his situation with his mom and his dad and the things that he has gone through, he has maintained a 4.0 GPA and like a 26 or 27 on the ACT,” Brent said. “Not only are we getting a good basketball player, but we are getting a good kid. He has gone through a lot of stuff off the court, but he maintains good character and good grades.”

Washington sees a strength in Johnson that he hopes to nurture during his remaining time with him.

“I tell the team that we all go through things in life,” Washington said.  “We will all face adversity in life. It’s not the adversity that we face. It’s how we respond to that adversity. No matter what happens in life, life goes on. It doesn’t stop. Yes, what happened was tragic and we think about it often but when you look at him and how Avaughn handled the situation, it makes me want to push him harder.”