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Spencer Johnson shines in first start as BYU dominates Ottawa in exhibition game

In his first career start with the Cougars, Johnson scored a game-high 16 points and had six steals

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BYU’s Spencer Johnson is introduced prior to exhibition game against Ottawa Wednesday night in Provo.

BYU’s Spencer Johnson is introduced prior to exhibition game against Ottawa Wednesday night at the Marriott Center in Provo. Johnson finished with a game-high 16 points.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

There’s plenty of attention on the newcomers that have joined the BYU basketball team this season, and rightly so — there are plenty of new faces.

But in Wednesday night’s 109-69 exhibition win at the Marriott Center over Ottawa (Arizona), an NAIA program, at the Marriott Center, returning guard Spencer Johnson showed how he’s been able to elevate his game even more this season. 

In his first career start with the Cougars, Johnson scored a game-high 16 points, including 6 of 9 from the field and 3 of 4 from 3-point range, to go along with three assists. He knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the game’s opening minutes. 

But it seemed that Johnson was even more proud of his game-high six steals. 

In practices, and in games, BYU coach Mark Pope emphasizes a “Defensive Impact Metric,” which tracks the impact of deflections, steals, charges and blocks. The goal is to be disruptive defensively. 

The Cougars held Ottawa to 38% shooting from the field and 27 turnovers. BYU scored 40 points off those turnovers.  

“We’re really pushing on this team to be disruptive on defense. Obviously, it was important tonight. It’s going to be important every (game),” Johnson said. “It’s something that’s reproducible. You can work hard to earn shots for your teammates, but some nights shots go in and some nights shots don’t go in. Something you can do every day is DIM.”

Wednesday, Johnson was the Cougars’ DIM poster boy. 

“Spencer was never chasing. He was on his toes the whole night. It was impressive,” Pope said. “Spence has got unbelievable balance and unbelievable closing speed. In a really physical, fast-paced game, he was able not to get bumped off his line.”

During the offseason, Johnson worked hard to put 18 pounds on his frame. 

“I’ve never been able to put on weight like that while also being able to stay quick,” he said. “Putting on weight and working with our strength coach to make sure my lateral quickness … is staying the same. It really has.”

Part of the process of adding weight included eating late-night, 1,200-calorie frozen pizzas and protein shakes. 

And after two years being in the program, Johnson finally received his first start. 

“It felt great,” he said. “One thing I’ve always talked about is, it doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes the game. I’ve worked really hard and it felt so good to hear my name being called and then to step out there and actually play really well. Ultimately, even better to get the win.”

Pope put Johnson’s journey in perspective. 

“For two years, he could have made an incredibly solid argument that he should have been a starter and he hadn’t started a single game. That matters. It’s just not the most important thing by far and he never let it become the most important thing,” he said. “One of the beautiful things for Spence is, you talk about a dude that’s primed and ready to step into a starting role.

“Of course, we all care about starting, but it’s not going to affect the way he plays. He’s been a gift for us for two years. He was incredible for us tonight. What he did is very reproducible.”

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BYU guard Rudy Williams drives to the basket Wednesday night during the Cougars’ exhibition victory over Ottawa.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Besides Johnson, five other Cougars scored in double figures — Rudi Williams (15), Atiki Ally Atiki (14), Jaxson Robinson (12), Fousseyni Traore (10) and Dallin Hall (10).

Traore recorded a double-double by grabbing a team-high 11 rebounds. Gideon George had eight points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.

As a team, BYU hit 15 of 31 3-pointers.

“They turned down so many challenging shots to earn great shots for their teammates all night long,” Pope said. “That was super special.”

The Cougars out-rebounded Ottawa 45-29. 

Unfortunately for BYU, it turned the ball over 19 times, including 10 over the first 14 minutes of the game. 

“A lot of those turnovers came with us trying to do what we’re trying to learn how to do,” Pope said. “Clearly, we’re not going to win any games with 19 turnovers. But we’re in a massive growth place right now … It’s trying to figure out how to play the way we want to play. We’re learning. Being patient is going to be super important.”

BYU officially tips off the season Monday against Idaho State.