PROVO — At a time when he was supposed to be competing for a National Junior College championship, BYU basketball signee Spencer Johnson has been spending long hours almost every day on a farm in eastern Oregon, with a shovel in his hands. 

Johnson is digging dirt out of ditches for irrigation, digging trenches and installing fuse boxes, among other tasks, on a friend’s 1,500-acre farm near the Oregon-Idaho border. 

“You’ve got to do something to stay busy, you know?” Johnson said. “It’s a job. I’ll be here for a while.”

As a redshirt freshman guard at Salt Lake Community College this season, Johnson helped guide the Bruins to a 29-4 record. He was looking forward to the NJCAA Tournament, which was canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.

Spencer Johnson pauses to give a thumbs-up while digging ditches on a farm in Oregon. | Courtesy Spencer Johnson

These days, while performing exhausting manual labor on the farm, his mind wanders in different directions.

“Honestly, this March is going by pretty slow,” said the 6-foot-5, 175-pound American Fork native. “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.”

Johnson averaged 13.4 points and shot 51% from the floor, including 38% from 3-point range at SLCC. He signed with BYU last November.

Now, when he’s not doing online classes and being a farmhand, Johnson hones his hoops skills at a high school gym in Oregon, where his dad is the superintendent of the school district. His family moved to Nyssa, Oregon, last summer.

“I’m so excited to get down there and get this virus over with, and then we can get life back.” — Spencer Johnson

“My dad’s got keys to the high school. I just go over there,” he said. “I’ve got to do that every day. I’d go crazy if I didn’t do that.”

Johnson can’t wait to play in Provo next season. He has three years of eligibility remaining.

“I think I fit in really well at BYU. BYU likes to play with a lot of pace and space. They shoot and play defense. I fit in perfectly in that system,” he said. “I’m really just excited to get in there and get to know my teammates and compete with them and hopefully compete for some playing time as well.”

This is the second time that Johnson has signed with a Mark Pope-coached team. 

Actually, Johnson has taken a long and circuitous route to Provo. He earned Deseret News first-team all-state honors at American Fork High and signed with Weber State before leaving for a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Milan, Italy. When he returned from 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. 

Viewmont’s Matt Stringham works to defend Spencer Johnson as American Fork and Viewmont play Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But Pope took the helm of BYU’s program last April. Johnson transferred from UVU to SLCC, then signed with BYU. 

“There’s a couple of things that have drawn me to coach Pope. It’s the way he is with his players. He expects you to be the best in every aspect of your life — your grades, your social life and on the basketball court,” Johnson said. “He values who you are as a person but he pushes you to be the best you can be. He’s got a great mind for basketball. He’s always working. Every time I call or text him, he’s always going. When you surround yourself with people that see greatness inside of you and push you to achieve it, you’re going to be successful no matter what. That’s what coach Pope does for me.”

During the season, Johnson kept a close eye on what was going on at BYU. The Cougars ended up posting a 24-8 record and finished with a No. 18 national ranking. 

“What really jumped out to me was how together that team was. Every time I‘d go down there, every time I was around them, the guys just liked being around each other and they liked competing together. You can definitely see that on the court,” Johnson said. “Those coaches are unbelievable. They prepare their guys extremely well and they take care of their guys. They’re focused on winning and being the best they can be. It’s an amazing culture where you feel like you can accomplish anything.”

When Johnson signed with the Cougars, Pope said of him, “Spencer is a battle-tested, high-ceiling, tough winner who has a chance to come and make an immediate impact on our roster. He is crushing it in the junior college ranks right now and we expect his game to continue to grow throughout this season.”

Johnson cherishes the season he spent at SLCC under first-year coach Kyle Taylor. The Bruins won 15 consecutive games to end the year.

“For me, it was really beneficial. It’s a reset button. Guys find a new route to whatever their dream is. It worked out really well. I’m grateful for that,” he said. “We had seven or eight Division I transfers on the team so it took us a while to get used to playing with each other. Almost everyone was new and we had never played with each other before. We started a little slow as we were trying to figure ourselves out. We won 15 in a row. It’s been great.”

On March 7, No. 5 SLCC pounded Eastern Arizona College 101-73 as Johnson finished with 17 points and the Bruins claimed the NJCAA West District championship. Days later, the national tournament was postponed until April and the players were told to go home for a couple of weeks. 

“Then we got that text that said the national tournament was canceled and the season was over,” Johnson said. “That was tough. It hit pretty hard. We were peaking at the right time. Then it kind of went down the drain. We understand why, but you hate to see it go down that way.”

For Johnson, the coronavirus outbreak has been personal. Because he served his mission in Italy, he has friends who have been impacted in that country, which has been ravaged by the deadly virus. 

“It’s been tough. I still keep in touch with a lot of people there,” he said. “A couple of my close friends have been hospitalized and have been affected pretty bad by it. It’s been hard. I definitely feel for them and I’ve been praying for them. It’s a tough thing they’re going through.”

Johnson’s younger brother, Isaac, who prepped at American Fork High and signed with Oregon, is a 6-foot-11, four-star recruit that is currently serving a mission in Columbus, Ohio. Isaac Johnson had been serving on the campus of Ohio State University before the coronavirus shut down the school. 

“He got transferred and he and his companion are in a self-isolation quarantine and they can only go out if they have set appointments,” Spencer Johnson said. “He’s doing good. He’s still working hard. It’s definitely different.”

Spencer Johnson’s life is also definitely different right now as he works on a farm. His plan is to finish classes at SLCC in May and enroll at BYU in June. 

“I’m so excited to get down there and get this virus over with,” he said, “and then we can get life back.”

In the meantime, Johnson is giving new meaning to the term “working out” as he shoots hoops at a high school gym and labors on a farm, with a shovel in his hands.