Clarion's version of 'Dr. J' has been a key contributor

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 10:46 p.m.

“Dr. Aaron Johnson from Princeton” has a nice ring to it.

But despite having an academic scholarship to an Ivy League university and eyes on medical school, something was missing for Johnson as a freshman last winter: basketball.

So the Moon native transferred to Clarion, and Johnson quickly has become one of the team's best players. He is averaging 9.0 points and 6.6 rebounds since the NCAA cleared him for the second semester. Johnson, a 6-foot-4 forward who is a freshman eligibility-wise, also leads the Golden Eagles (5-13) with a .788 free-throw percentage and 1.2 blocks per game.

And even though Johnson left the Ivy League and changed majors from chemical and biological engineering to molecular biology, his career plans haven't changed.

“You think because it's Princeton that (transferring) really shouldn't be a thought, but I felt that most important for me was being comfortable and enjoying myself because these are supposed to be the best four years of your life,” said Johnson, his class valedictorian. “I took that into careful consideration and decided I'd be better overall at Clarion.”

Johnson had hoped to walk on at Division I Princeton but only made junior varsity as a freshman. The JV team practiced sporadically and occasionally played local prep schools. It was basketball withdrawal for Johnson, who started every game during four varsity seasons at Moon and is the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

“It was tough, let me tell you,” said Johnson, whose father, Gil, played for Pitt from 1988-90. “It just wasn't the same not having that everyday experience working with coaches, working with teammates. It definitely threw me off.”

When Johnson decided to transfer over the summer, D-II Clarion re-emerged after also recruiting him out of high school.

“You go where you're comfortable and go where you're wanted,” Golden Eagles coach Ron Righter said. “We really wanted him, not just as a player but as a student and teammate. I think this will be an outstanding fit.”

Johnson's intelligence became obvious immediately. He earned a 4.0 GPA during the fall semester and also impressed during practice. Righter said he often poses questions to his team, and one day the subject turned to European history.

“We had a defense called ‘Garibaldi' where we trap all over the floor. I said, ‘Guys, can anybody tell me about Garibaldi?' The guys were looking at each other, and they had no clue.

“Aaron raises his hand and says, ‘Yeah, I know. Italian commander.' And he went on for about two minutes about (Giuseppe) Garibaldi. Guys are dying. We were just rolling around. … He's like a walking encyclopedia.”

On the court, Johnson still has much to learn. He's one of the top first-year players in the PSAC, but he's adjusting to the rigors of being an undersized power forward in a top-level D-II league. All this while working off the rust after not playing competitively for 1½ years.

“I really want to work in the offseason on getting bigger, stronger, quicker, more explosive,” Johnson said. “I think that's what I lost most of in that year-and-a-half is the explosiveness that I had. Something that I'm working toward getting back.”

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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