BYU guard Spencer Johnson is embracing his role off the bench and he’s providing both instant offense and instant defense for the Cougars.

In two games last week, the 6-foot-5, 175-pound sophomore scored 26 points, shot 10 of 16 from the field, including 6 of 8 from 3-point range, collected eight rebounds and dished out four assists. 

“Spencer Johnson has earned his way into the rotation by guarding. He’s a special defensive player. He’s got length and closing speed. He’s making a huge difference in the backcourt with the way he guards and he’s clearly shooting at a really high rate right now.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

In an 82-64 win over Utah last Saturday, Johnson recorded 16 points in 27 minutes and hit 4 of 8 3-pointers — and he also received six stitches above his left eye right after the game.

For Johnson, beating the Utes was gratifying, especially after losing earlier in the week to Boise State. 

“It feels really, really good. This is something you dream about as a player, especially how people hype it up — BYU vs. Utah, one of those in-state rivalry games,” he said. “It felt so good to be on the floor and come out with a win.”

The Cougars visit No. 18 San Diego State Friday (3 p.m. MST, CBSSN). 

As noticeable as Johnson’s offense has been, coach Mark Pope said it’s his defense that awarded him playing time. 

“Spencer Johnson has earned his way into the rotation by guarding. He’s a special defensive player,” Pope said. “He’s got length and closing speed. He’s making a huge difference in the backcourt with the way he guards and he’s clearly shooting at a really high rate right now.”

What makes Johnson such an effective defender? 

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“He has unbelievable closing speed. We don’t have a ton of guys on this team with makeup ability but he’s got length and closing speed,” Pope said. “He’s been spectacular in his defensive assignments. He’s making a huge difference on our team in the backcourt, the way he guards. He’s been fantastic.” 

Certainly, Johnson’s journey to BYU has been a long and winding one.

After starring at American Fork High, Johnson signed with Weber State before leaving for a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Milan, Italy.

Following his mission, he spent a semester in the fall of 2018 at Weber State before transferring to Utah Valley University, where Pope was the head coach. After Pope left for BYU, Johnson transferred from UVU to Salt Lake Community College.

At SLCC, Johnson averaged 13.4 points and shot 51% from the floor, including 38% from 3-point range. He helped lead the Bruins to a 29-4 record and he was looking forward to playing in the NJCAA Tournament, which was canceled due to COVID-19.  

When the season ended abruptly, Johnson traveled to eastern Oregon, where his family now lives, and spent long days digging ditches and performing other tasks on a friend’s 1,500-acre farm. 

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Once players were allowed back on campus last summer, Johnson joined his team at BYU, where he signed in November 2019. 

“You’ve got to do something to stay busy, you know?” Johnson told the Deseret News last spring. “It’s a job. I’ll be here for a while … Honestly, this March is going by pretty slow. You’ll always think about what might have been. I was really looking forward to winning the national championship. But I got the experiences with my teammates to hold on to. It was a great time at SLCC.”

Now, Johnson is a Cougar and he’s making a major impact. 

“Spencer Johnson has not had an easy road. He was at Weber and then UVU and then Salt Lake Community College and then here all in the span of two years,” Pope said. “And all the time with the belief that he had it in him to be a terrific player. He kept believing when a lot of people didn’t. He’s proving it right now. Watching stories like that, it’s the best part of sports. I’m really happy for him. He’s got a lot of growing to do but he’s proving that he’s a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end and the offensive end.”

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