Stanley Johnson's special skill set

Stanley Johnson Ready To Launch (2:12)

Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson's physical abilities have left his new teammates in awe. His performance will be critical for a Wildcats team with Final Four aspirations. (2:12)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Seven-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski might be the third Klitschko brother. Like the boxing champs, he's a chiseled, 245-pound giant who should audition for the role of Ivan Drago if there's ever a "Rocky IV" remake.

But in late September, Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson overpowers Tarczewski in a scrap for a rebound. Johnson hooks Tarczewski's arm and tosses him like a suitcase during a contentious practice at Richard Jefferson Gymnasium.

"Hey, man!" Tarczewski screams as he rises from the floor. "What the f--- was that?!"

Johnson shrugs, raises his hands and runs the other direction.

"What the f--- was that?" is what those who've faced the 6-foot-7, 245-pound shooting guard -- yes, shooting guard -- have wondered for years. That's a reasonable reaction to the sight of a specimen who rumbles through the lane with a guard's speed and the violence of a linebacker.

His teammates call him "Stanimal."

The former McDonald's All-American could be the gas for this robust Arizona engine that should compete for the national title. That's a terrifying burden for most freshmen. But Johnson fears little.

Ask LeBron James, whom Johnson trash-talked to his face during a one-on-one encounter at James' offseason skills camp.

"The whole week when I'm playing during the games, he's there watching and I'm like, 'You're next,'" Johnson said. "When he came on the court, I'm just ultra-confident with it. Super confident. ... He's the best player in the world but at the same time, he laces his shoes up the same way I lace my shoes up. Hopefully, one day I'll get to play against him [in the NBA]. ... LeBron James, to me, he's just a really good basketball player and I have to match up with him."

Johnson's ringtone is "Versace" by Migos. "My swag is exquisite," one line in the rap song states, and it fits his personality. Stanley Johnson believes in Stanley Johnson. That's no secret in the Arizona locker room.

"I feel like confidence is one of the things you can control," Johnson said. "And I've talked to a lot of pros, and they say if you're confident, that's half the battle."

He's not the cocky, annoying youngster who thinks the world spins on his finger. He's confident in his capabilities, though. And he has the work ethic to back that self-perception. But he also knows the world is bigger than what happens on the court.

He's a good student. And his faith trumps everything in his life. As a young athlete, he missed many Sunday games because church topped basketball in his house. He volunteers at a senior facility back home. And he speaks to at-risk youth about surpassing the odds.

"When guys say it's one in a million that make it to college, it's one in a million that make it to the league, I always tell kids like, man, you're that one," he said.

But Johnson's nice-guy act vanishes once he reaches the court. You don't win four consecutive California high school championships and multiple gold medals for USA Basketball's youth squads without a little dog in you.

He's a punishing behemoth -- 6.7 percent body fat -- with an attitude that's nestled somewhere between the appalling arrogance that hinders so many basketball hopefuls and the I-want-to-close-the-show certainty that stardom demands.

"When I start playing basketball," he said, "I'm a totally different person than I am when I'm just talking and just here."

But that's how his mother raised him. The meek-hearted rarely prosper in this game. So Karen Taylor always pushed the value of a high self-esteem to a young Johnson.

"I built him," Taylor said, "so that he would believe in himself."

This all started, however, with Taylor believing in herself first.

One day, Taylor asked her mother for more air. The basketball that the native Mississippian dribbled was too flat. So her mother, who raised Taylor and her two brothers alone, sent one of them, Willie, to the service station to pump it up.

Then, Taylor convinced Willie -- nicknamed "Tunk" -- to turn an old bicycle wheel into a hoop. He removed the spokes, hammered it to a tree and promised her that this game could take her beyond a world where baloney sandwiches were gourmet meals.

Tunk would wait for her to return home from school so they could run and execute drills together. The whole time, he whispered the optimism she needed to craft a vision. She devoted her time to the game as basketball became a lifeboat, or more like a tugboat, for the titanic athlete.

Her father was 6-foot-8. Tunk, who is deceased, was 6-foot-4. Her other brother, Mike, is 6-foot-1. Taylor is 6-foot-2. Whenever her family walked to the local courts, the neighborhood kids realized they had a problem.

"They knew it was on," Taylor said. "I wasn't playing about it."

She dominated through high school and earned a scholarship to Jackson State, where she was inducted into the school's hall of fame in 2009. She played professionally in Denmark and Sweden in the era of women's basketball that preceded the WNBA.

She's not shy about reminding her son that he's the No. 2 basketball player in the family.

"I told him he didn't break my [records] yet," she said. "I still got the best jumper. Don't get it twisted. He's dunking and all that stuff. But he knows I had a flash."

She needed that mojo to outrun the poverty that birthed her ambition. And that's what she bequeathed to her son, along with impressive genes (Johnson's father, Stanley Johnson Sr., is 6-foot-5) and proportions.

"I'm from Mississippi, so I fed him collard greens and cornbread growing up," she said. "He always got three full meals."

She also coached Johnson at the AAU level until he was in high school. When he was 5, she tied up his right arm and forced him to dribble and shoot with his left hand.

She'd feed his mind by throwing scenarios at him whenever they were in the car: Ten seconds on the clock, your team has the ball on the baseline. What are you going to do, Stanley?

As a result, Johnson's physical advantages are secondary to his mental edge. He sees the floor well. He's unselfish and tame but also ferocious on the break and in traffic. He's fluent in X's and O's because of his mother's influence.

Beyond tools, she also shaped him to play the game with aplomb. She criticized him when he messed up in games, and then she followed with positivity. The overall message to her son: You're not where you want to be yet, but you're talented enough to get there.

"At a young age, you don't realize, man, what she's teaching me now, I'm going to use in college, or what she's teaching me now, it's going to be one of those fundamental things," Johnson said.

After a late September practice, the Wildcats roam the adjacent weight room. And they seem more focused on the previous night's NFL action than their workout, which perturbs Chris Rounds, the team's strength and conditioning coach.

"I love it when people talk s---," Brandon Ashley tells teammate Craig Victor about the former's beloved 49ers.

In the midst of the banter, Johnson approaches a rowing machine he's eyed for a few seconds. He throws five plates on each side, sits down and begins to tug 450 pounds of steel. The machine can't handle more weight than that. But it's obvious that Johnson, who rarely lifted weights in high school, can.

Onnnnnnne .... Twoooooo .... Threeeee .... Fooooooour .... Fiiiiiive .... Siiiiix.

Johnson dismounts and smirks as if to say, "That's it?"

"I haven't had too many problems getting him to buy in and do the work," Rounds said.

Yes, he's rare. But he's also flawed.

Can he defend Division I wings if coach Sean Miller employs him full-time at shooting guard? What if he can't shoot, a challenge throughout his prep career? Will his physical play lead to a hefty number of charge calls? Would he better off playing small forward?

They're all legit questions about Johnson, but this one matters too: Who the hell can stop him?

"Usually when you see a freshman roll in, regardless of the accolades he comes with or how talented he is, there has to be a physical adjustment," Miller said. "Even Aaron Gordon, as talented as he was athletically, strengthwise, he was able to get a lot stronger during his nine months with us. Stanley shows up with a body and, I think, with a spirit and an endurance about him that you don't see very often."