Three days after Hailey Brown went down with a leg injury last February, then-sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson scored a career-high 19 points against Minnesota.
From that point on, Johnson — “AK” as she’s known by her teammates — was a staple of the Michigan women’s basketball lineup. She went from seeing barely any minutes off the bench to excelling as the Wolverines’ sixth-woman — scoring in double figures in three of the last six games in the season.
“AK had an outstanding finish to last season,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “She really came on strong late. She helped in the Big Ten Tournament and helped us in the NCAA Tournament. So I think she brings a level of experience playing in big games.”
That stretch did wonders for Johnson’s confidence. Her ascent to the starting lineup — or at the very least, significant minutes off the bench — looked within reach heading into her junior campaign. Unfortunately for Johnson and the Michigan team as a whole, a broken hand suffered right before the season got in the way of that. She missed the first three games of the regular season and only returned to practice a few days before her season debut against Missouri in the Gulf Coast Showcase.
“I was a little nervous because I had only had like a practice and a half before getting into the game,” Johnson said. “So I was a little nervous to get my feet wet. But I think coming back was good for me mentally, too, because I came back against such competitive teams that I’ll be ready for the rest of the season.”
Over the course of the Gulf Coast Showcase, Johnson averaged 14 minutes per game against the likes of the No. 21 Tigers, No. 5 Texas and Washington — a figure that will likely increase as the season goes on.
The benefits of her return are two-fold for the Wolverines.
On the court, Johnson’s size at the guard position makes her a tough matchup for a lot of players. She has shown an ability to both shoot from the outside and drive the basketball with success, but her real contribution takes shape in her rebounding ability.
“I’m more of a taller guard,” she said. “A lot of guards are smaller than me so they don’t expect the wings to be able to rebound. So I think I’m more of a rebounding, stronger, physical guard that can get to the basket but also shoot the wide-open jump shot.”
Now a junior, her feel and game experience also suits a relatively young Michigan squad.
“She’s been through practices,” Barnes Arico said. “I think the game is starting to slow down for her. She has a good feel for the game. She knows how to cut, she knows how to read, she’s really a student of the game. I think she’s really going to provide a lot of experience at the guard spot.”
The second, and arguably more important, aspect of her return is her development as a team leader.
Following her stellar end to last season, Barnes Arico and the other coaches encouraged Johnson to be more outspoken. Sidelined with her hand injury, she finally embraced a more vocal role in practice and during games.
“Off the court, I do a lot like take the freshmen places,” she said. “If they need a ride, I’ll do that to try and build a relationship off the court, so that on the court, I can be more trustworthy to people and I can have a better relationship with them.”
Johnson’s experience at Michigan thus far is one that resonates with her younger teammates. Her basketball career has been riddled with adversity. Two ACL injuries over the course of three years, having to bide her time on the bench until her number was called at the end of her sophomore season and then getting injured again shortly after is a sequence of events not easily overcome.
And yet, Johnson has battled through it all.
“She is a kid that didn’t play much in her younger days,” Barnes Arico said. “For the younger kids to see that and to see her growth and now where she is, I think they believe ‘Hey, that could be me. I need to buy in and I need to keep working.’
“AK is soft-spoken, but she connects with everyone, and I think she’s helped the rest of the players in our program really believe in that vision.”
Johnson may not be a starter, but her continued growth as both a player and a leader could be a major asset for the Wolverines going forward.