Lawrence High senior Shaun Johnson is back on the court for a full season after an injury-wrecked junior year. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

During a period of life when a kid’s biggest worry should be studying for an exam or hoping he can get a date to the junior prom, Shaun Johnson was suffering through a concerning case of the blues last December.

“Everything was just kind of harder,” the Lawrence High senior said. “Every day I was really tired, I didn’t want to eat in the morning. I don’t know why that developed but I stopped eating in the morning.”

Fortunately, he had a support system.

“For sure, my parents were always taking care of me,” Johnson said. “They were making sure I got my work done, because I really didn’t feel like ever doing anything.”

The cause of this depression was due to a freak gym class injury that cost Johnson a big chunk of his junior basketball season. But the good news is, Johnson is back with appetite intact. He is feeling better than ever and ready to be a major force on the Cardinals this season.

“I just felt bad for him,” coach Jeff Molinelli said. “Going into his junior year you could see how special he was going to be. He worked so freaking hard. This year he’s healthy, looks good. Knock on wood he can stay healthy and hopefully have a great year. He deserves it, he’s a great kid.”

Johnson’s mishap occurred on the same day that Lawrence was going to have its first scrimmage. After playing for the freshman team in 9th grade and the JV team as a sophomore, he had improved to the point he was going to be a varsity starter. He was fired up.

Then he was let down.

During that fateful gym class, Johnson went up for a two-handed dunk “with the intention to hang on the rim.” The laws of physics had other plans, however. Johnson’s hand slipped off the rim and somehow, his body contorted and flipped forward and he plummeted face first to the floor. His natural instinct was to put his arms out to break the fall.

The result was two broken wrists.

“It’s like when you bang your knee and it’s hard to move your leg for a second,” Johnson recalled. “It felt like that, so I was thinking maybe it would be hard to move for a second and then I’d be OK after a while. After a few minutes I tried to pick up a water bottle and my hand was shaking real bad and I figured there was probably something wrong.”

Johnson was sent to the hospital by the school nurse, where the diagnosis showed two breaks and the estimate was that he would miss between four to eight weeks. Suddenly, the joy of playing varsity basketball was turned inside out.

“It was really kind of devastating,” Johnson said. “Especially when it happened and I knew I wasn’t gonna come back until deep in the season. It was tough the whole time, especially when we would play and have some close games and I would think ‘Man we could have won that game if I was playing.’ That was the hardest thing to do was watch those games.”

Although he did not have surgery, Johnson had to wear splints and wraps on both wrists. He could still write and type in the classroom and do cardiovascular workouts to keep in shape, but was unable to handle a basketball.

Ten games into the season Johnson finally returned with the wraps still in place. All his work and preparation had been diminished, however, as he tried to regain his stride.

“When I came back it was really hard to play,” he said. “I hadn’t been playing for so long, I was rusty. I didn’t know the plays as well as I should have. I couldn’t shoot that well, I couldn’t handle the ball that well, everything was kind of off.

“At the end of the season, once I was able to play without the wraps on my wrist, I started getting my shot back. I was able to handle the ball a little bit. I remember a game against Hillsborough, I scored 15 points and that was the game I felt like I was playing like myself again.”

Molinelli knew it was going to take time.

“He started a couple games after he came back,” the coach said. “He brought some height and length, could shoot the outside shot, attack the rim a little bit. The biggest issue was just that confidence, just trying to get the game swagger back after sitting out that long. Having that first varsity experience halfway through the season when everybody is already in mid-season form is tough for any kid. He played well, he worked his butt off when he came back, and he started playing a lot better.

Once fully recovered, Johnson did everything in his power to regain top form. Always a gym rat, he went at it even harder. Immediately after the season ended, Johnson was in the gym working on his shot and ball handling. For him, it wasn’t extra work; but extra fun.

“I look forward to going to the gym and practice every day,” Johnson said. “It’s something I like doing. I get excited every day. I’m like ‘All right, we’ve got practice today, it’s gonna be fun.’”

In the summer, he played high-level AAU for the first time with the Jersey Cyclone. It proved invaluable.

“I learned a lot,” Johnson said. “The game is a lot harder, there’s a lot of really good players. I learned a lot even just watching people play, I think that’s what I improved most on, just knowing what to do in certain situations.”

Molinelli had no doubt that Johnson would do what was necessary, but still marveled at what he brought to the table in pre-season.

“Johnson is fired up, he’s ready to go,” the coach said. “You could tell he worked his butt off. We had a pretty tough tryout, he pretty much won every sprint in the gym. It’s all just from hard work and living in the gym. He also worked with a personal trainer. He’s excited. I hope his hard work works out for him.”

Johnson’s role will be mainly as a scorer and rebounder as Molinelli feels he should deliver some double-double efforts this year. But Johnson may do a few other things as well. A growth spurt took him from 5-10 as a sophomore to 6-4 this year,

“I can pretty much play every position except for point guard,” Johnson said. “I feel most comfortable on the wing, sometimes they have me at the four. I like doing a lot of pick and pops. When I was growing up I was always a shooter, it was what I did. I’ve maintained my shot, I can also drive, I can jump a little bit. I’ve gotten a lot better at defense. I think really my main goal is as scorer in general. Defensively I’m more a big man defensively. We do have some big players on our team, so I probably won’t have to guard the center every game.”

Due to missing half of his junior year, which is key when it comes to college recruiting, Johnson plans on going to prep school next year and playing as a post-graduate. For now, Molinelli can’t wait to see what he does in his final year as a Cardinal.

“I think he’s gonna have a really good year,” the coach said. “This year if there’s a most improved player award in the league, it will probably be him. I think he’s going to have his coming out party as a senior.”

Just watch out for those two-handed dunks.

“Luckily,” Johnson said, “I don’t have gym class this semester.”