The Lee Academy boys basketball team has gained considerable attention in recent years for the influx of international players on its roster.
Yet while the most influential newcomer on this year’s squad also had to navigate across an ocean path to get to this independent school in the north central part of the state, it required a much shorter boat ride — but a more roundabout route.
“It’s been a long year, for sure, a very long year,” said D.J. Johnson after contributing 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists to the Pandas’ 61-47 victory at previously undefeated Penquis of Milo on Saturday.
Johnson already had established his basketball credentials both on the AAU level and as one of the better players ever to come from Islesboro, located in Penobscot Bay some three miles off the Maine coast from Lincolnville Beach.
The 6-foot-2 point guard had started for the Eagles since his eighth-grade year, an opportunity afforded only at high schools with the most limited of enrollments — Islesboro Central School has approximately 85 students in kindergarten through grade 12. He scored his 1,000th career point last January as a junior at Islesboro while leading his team to a 16-2 record and a berth in the Western Maine Class D tournament.
But looking to broaden his horizons — in part to enhance his chances of playing college basketball one day — Johnson last summer transferred to Class A Hampden Academy.
He worked out with his future Broncos’ teammates throughout the offseason and attended classes at Hampden for much of the fall while commuting from Winterport, where he lived with his aunt and uncle.
Then travel problems having nothing to do with catching a ferry ride to or from the mainland got in the way.
“I was in a car accident a couple of weeks before I left Hampden, and I lived 25 minutes from school,” he said. “I was transporting myself everywhere and had no way to get back and forth.”
Johnson already was thinking about spending a postgraduate year at Lee Academy, so given the circumstances he and his family decided he should move on early to that school, where he could live in housing on or near the campus.
Under the Maine Principals’ Association transfer policy, if a student wishes to transfer from one school to another and the parents do not make a corresponding move to a community served by the new school, the student, parents and the principals of both schools involved must sign a transfer waiver form that states that the move is not primarily for athletic purposes.
If the MPA receives the signed transfer waiver form and has no other information indicating that the move is primarily for athletic reasons, the waiver generally will be granted, said MPA executive director Dick Durost.
“We had to make a quick decision, and this was a way for me to go to Lee and get used to the school and their system,” said Johnson, who transferred to Lee in early November. “We knew some people up here, had some connections, and this is where I am now.
“They were very welcoming. I live in a home-stay with a lady and a couple of other kids, and she was very welcoming. She made the transition smooth and everyone helped me out. It’s a great place.”
Johnson became an immediate presence in Mallett Gymnasium on the Lee campus.
“Right after he transferred to Lee from Hampden, I was in the gym and I came around the corner and ran into him nose to nose at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Lee boys basketball coach and athletic administrator Randy Harris. “D.J. was coming in to shoot and lift weights the first day he was here, so that’s how I introduced myself to him.”
Johnson also quickly established himself as an on-court leader for the Pandas, who enter Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. home game against Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln — the only team to defeat Lee so far this winter — with a 7-1 record.
“He’s a great player and even a better kid,” said Harris. “He brings us stability. Dustin [Sawtelle] and Jasil [Elder] are both good point guards and that was the plan coming into the season, to have them play there. But D.J. came in and we were able to move them off the point where Jasil can be a slasher to the basket and a threat from the wing and Dustin’s a good outside shooter.
“D.J.’s a true scoring point guard, so when you need a hoop he can go and get it.”
Johnson showed off the versatility within his game during the victory over Penquis, creating shot opportunities for his teammates early in the contest before getting his own perimeter game going during the second half as the Pandas pulled away.
“The Johnson kid is tough,” said Penquis coach Tony Hamlin. “He can shoot the ball from 3, and he can get by you.”
Johnson also played a key role defensively as Lee limited Penquis to a 13-of-60 (21.7 percent) shooting performance from the field.
“D.J.’s very smart, he knows how to cut down angles and he knows how to force guys to their weak hand,” said Harris. “He’s also very good at blocking out. He knows not to give second opportunities and to deny his guy the ball. He’s just a complete package. He’s been well coached wherever he’s been before, so when he came in here we just had to plug him in.”
Johnson is focused on team goals, particularly helping Lee in its defense of the 2011 Class C state championship. But he’s also seeking to develop his flexibility, quickness and perimeter shooting touch with an eye toward the longer-term future.
“I love Islesboro, it’s where I grew up,” he said. “It was a big jump coming here, but I’m glad I did it.”