Jazz Johnson’s path to Nevada began when former head coach Eric Musselman scouted him during a summer workout. Despite initially appearing to be at a disadvantage due to his height of 5-foot-10, Johnson has become one of the star players on Nevada’s roster, and arguably, one of the best shooters in the country. Johnson owes a lot of his work ethic and success to his motto, “heart over height.”
Johnson explains that his motto grew organically out of his passion for the sport and the values he’s grown up with.
“I think that’s how I’ve grown up to be, that everything you put yourself into you have to go 100 percent. My parents taught me to work for what I want,” Johnson said. “It’s more about what’s in your heart and how much you want it and how much you care, it’s not just what God has given you physically. A lot of guys will play basketball because they’re tall and I did because I genuinely loved the game.”
Johnson hit a growth spurt early, being one of the taller guards on his middle school team, but stopped growing around high school, which is when he began adopting his motto.
“I didn’t really have the motto as a young kid,” Johnson said. “But growing up throughout high school and college and realizing I was smaller than everyone else on the court, my dad was always telling me to use my height to my advantage.”
Basketball found Johnson early in life. He elaborated that his passion for the sport began young.
“My dad introduced me to the game. He was really into sports,” Johnson said. “He played football, but basketball was his true love, and I think he really wanted me to fall in love with it, and so we did that stuff together.”
Johnson explained that his father helped him focus more on techniques that would give him an edge over larger players.
“He’s always taught me the leverage game, how the lower man always wins,” Johnson said. “My leverage is lower, so I can take bumps better, I have a lower center of gravity. I’m stronger in certain situations. I’m able to get into different places, like split a defense in a way that a taller guy wouldn’t be able to do.”
While developing his game, Johnson primarily worked on his speed and trying numerous ways to use his size to his advantage, rather than trying to match larger opponents physically. It’s a technique Johnson still uses to this day.
“My dad and I practiced everything for being on the court, knowing the plays and the game,” Johnson said. “Everything that goes into basketball rather than the physical side… the rest can be developed.”
Despite his work ethic and drive to pursue the sport, Johnson still initially struggled to be accepted into college basketball. This is not uncommon for shorter players. The stigma around basketball players is that they must be “giants”, or taller than average. Johnson is hoping to break that way of thinking.
“The average at one point in the league was like 6’6”, so in the basketball world that’s what everyone’s looking for, tall and lanky,” Johnson said. “So I always made sure that I had to work harder because I would always be looked down upon.”
Johnson originally played for the University of Portland for two seasons, which was his only offer out of high school. Johnson built up a reputation as a skilled shooter there, leading to him signing with the Wolf Pack in his junior year.
In two seasons with the Pilots, Johnson averaged .435 shooting percentage and a .402 three-point percentage. During Johnson’s sophomore season, he was averaging nearly 35 minutes a game on the court.
The foundation that the Pilots provided him, is paying dividends with the Pack. Johnson is currently tied for sixth in the nation in three-point attempts.
Although the Pilots helped spark his collegiate career, Johnson says he owes a lot of his drive to his parents, who encouraged him to pursue his dreams, despite the obstacles.
“As a kid, my biggest motivation was my parents, just constantly trying to make them proud,” Johnson said. “That’s my biggest motivation, to have them happy with the things I’m doing, and to always be moving my life in a positive direction.”
Johnson relayed how the motto’s sentiment can extend beyond his own story and basketball in general, encouraging people to see perceived limitations as challenges to be overcome.
“There’s no specific thing or specific way you have to be, no requirements per se,” Johnson said. “If you love something, put your all and your mind into it, and hopefully it will all work out in the end, and that’s all you can ask for. And most of the time, you’ll get something positive of it.”
Matt Cotter can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.