Spencer Johnson plays tight defense against Saint Mary's. (Decker Westenburg)

‘Every game…he’s the unsung hero’— Spencer Johnson excels in utility role for BYU

Mark Pope has been known for giving out plenty of second chances during his tenure at BYU.

A master of the transfer portal, Pope has brought frustrated cast-offs from other schools into his fold and elevated them into meaningful rotation pieces such as Alex Barcello, Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight. Of BYU’s eight players who played more than 12 minutes against Portland on Jan. 22, six were either originally committed to or previously spent time at a different program.

While offering a fresh start has become a convincing recruiting pitch, Pope is grateful for one former prospect on his roster who turned him down before giving Pope another shot.

“Spencer Johnson’s story is really awesome,” Pope said. “Most of the guys I recruit tell me, ‘no,’ and Spencer was one of those guys.”

Johnson spent his high school days at American Fork, being named a Utah 5A First Team All-State selection in 2016 and gaining the attention of Pope, who was serving as UVU’s head coach at the time and “fell in love” with the unassuming guard’s playing style.

“You look at this guy and don’t think he can make these plays, but then he makes every single play at every level,” Pope said.

Aggressively recruited by Pope, Johnson was offered a spot on the Wolverines but opted to sign with Weber State prior to serving a mission in Italy.

For as smooth as Johnson’s playmaking was in high school, finding the right fit following his mission proved bumpy at best. Without ever playing a game, Johnson spent two semesters redshirting at both Weber and UVU but still never felt sold.

Johnson ultimately landed at Salt Lake Community College, a puzzling move for those who wondered why someone would forfeit a Division-I scholarship to play at a junior college.

But suddenly the bumps disappeared. It was a match made in heaven.

Spencer Johnson during his time at SLCC. (Taylor Munroe/SLCC)

“That was the greatest thing for my career,” Johnson said of his lone season at SLCC, where he averaged 13.2 points per game for a Bruins team that finished 29-4 before COVID-19 canceled any postseason plans.

“That takes a ton of courage to play at SLCC,” Pope said. “You take that step back and people start to write you off, so it would be much easier to go hide somewhere else and be fine not playing as much. It takes courage to bet on yourself, and that’s what he did.”

Pope was sure to keep his eye on Johnson’s career at SLCC, even traveling to Colorado to catch a weekend tournament where Johnson “put on a show” and blew Pope away with his closing speed on both sides of the ball. After “begging” for another chance, Johnson accepted Pope’s pull to Provo to suit up for the Cougars prior to the 2020 campaign.

“I think he just felt sorry for me,” Pope joked of finally signing Johnson. “But he’s been a star. You just don’t see players who can do what he does, he’s got a skilled physicality that’s so special.”

While not overly flashy and seemingly flying under the radar at times, Johnson’s contributions off the bench for the Cougars have been invaluable as a key asset to Pope’s scrappy 17-4 squad.

“I wonder why I ever take him out of the game, he’s so impactful on the court,” Pope said.

In just over 21 minutes each night, Johnson averages 6.9 points on 46.2% shooting, along with a steady 38.5% clip from behind the arc that’s good for second on the team behind only Barcello. The stats may not jump off the page as anything ridiculous, but Johnson’s knack to hit a shot, fight for a rebound or force a turnover at the most critical moment transcends anything measurable.

“He has a poise about him that’s incredibly special,” Pope said. “Every single game I feel like he’s the unsung hero.”

Against UVU on Dec. 1, Johnson forced overtime with a clutch contested layup at the buzzer. Against Pacific, he slid through a Tigers inbound, swiped the ball and deposited a layup for a pivotal insurance score just before halftime in one of the season’s most satisfying sequences. In BYU’s most recent outing against Portland, Johnson tied for the team lead in plus/minus with a steep +21 mark, clear evidence to his importance in Pope’s rotation.

“I just feel like I’m the do-it-all guy,” Johnson said. “It’s a really important role. I feel a lot more confident now with the ball in my hand and shooting the ball.”

“Doing it all” for Johnson includes a strong, fundamentally-sound defensive presence, where he’s been arguably BYU’s best stopper and a constant headache for opposing ball-handlers.

“His work defensively is such a gift to our team, he goes out there and disrupts everything,” Pope said.

His journey to Provo may have come with a fair share of bumps, twists and turns, but the long-awaited arrival of Johnson in Pope’s system has given the Cougars a chance to win every single night. Still retaining another year of eligibility, Pope has made it clear that none of BYU’s immediate goals can be made possible without Johnson.

“It’s been this windy, long road to get where I am, but I’m super grateful for it,” Johnson said.“It’s cool to see how things work out in the end.”

“He’s probably the most undervalued person on our team,” Pope said. “He gets the least amount of attention for the incredible work that he does. There’s no chance we have the success we’ve had this year and last year without him.”

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