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Ex-Virginia Union star Kiana Johnson now lighting it up in Finland

The rookie has already been the league’s player of the week twice

Former Virginia Union star Kiana Johnson crisscrossed the nation displaying her basketball talents in college. Now the 5-foot-6, sharp-shooting, slick-passing guard has jetted across the globe to show what made her 2016 NCAA Division II Player of the Year.

Although she was the CIAA Player of the Year, Johnson didn’t get picked in the WNBA draft. Instead, she signed a professional contract with Forssan Alku of Forssa, Finland, where the team has made her the centerpiece of its rebuilding plans.

So far, the plan is working.

Johnson, 23, is the second-highest scorer in the SM-Sarja Finnish basketball league with a team-leading average of 22.8 points per game. She also leads her unbeaten team with 8.3 assists a game, and is grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game, too.

If a league MVP were selected today, Johnson might be favored to win it. Fans can follow her and keep up with her stats at Eurobasket.com.

Four weeks into the season, Johnson has twice been named the Eurobasket.com Player of the Week, and Forssan Alku (FoA) is the top-ranked team in the league at 4-0.

“I am playing well and enjoying the simplicity of life,” Johnson told The Undefeated by email. “The style of play is a lot different. The refs don’t call too many fouls, which is unsafe, but it makes me play smarter — not harder.

“As long as we continue to stay on the same page and work together, we can win a championship this year.”

Johnson said that her nearly seven rebounds per night comes partly out of necessity. She no longer has her former Virginia Union teammates Lady Walker and Taylor White, who teamed with Johnson to win the 2016 CIAA Championship and carry the Panthers to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division II basketball tournament.

“I go get the ball,” Johnson said. “Without rebounders like Walker and White, there are more rebounds available for me to grab.”

To earn her most recent honor in Week 3, Johnson contributed a double-double of 28 points and 10 assists, as Forssan beat Helmi Basket 98-87. That allowed FoA to take over top position in the league.

Johnson is shooting 55 percent from the field, including 47.4 percent from the 3-point line. For her first Player of the Week honor in Week 2, Johnson contributed 28 points and 10 rebounds, according to Eurobasket.com. Remember, she’s 5-foot-6.

Johnson’s former college coach, AnnMarie Gilbert at Virginia Union, is not surprised that her former star is becoming an international sensation.

“I am extremely excited for her, although I’m not surprised,” Gilbert said. “I expected Kiana to go over to Finland and dominate. That’s the goal that we set, and I recently received an email from her, being so thankful for the opportunity she had here at Virginia Union.

“She kind of credited me for being able to pull out of her the ability to score and pass at a high level,” said Gilbert, who was a star guard at Oberlin College in Ohio. Gilbert is also a former assistant coach at Michigan State, where Johnson played her first three seasons before transferring for her senior year at Virginia Union.

“Although we would like to take credit for how well our student-athletes do, that ability was in her all along,” Gilbert said. “So I’m just so thrilled. While she played here at Virginia Union, she was the darling of Richmond. She touched so many people by the way she played.”

Gilbert said Johnson’s goal is to “be able to inspire people and to have a chance to play in the WNBA.”

“That is my prayer for her,” Gilbert said. “The sky is the limit for where she can go.”

Getting started

Johnson led all NCAA women’s basketball in scoring last season, averaging 29.2 points a game. Deadly in college from 3-point range (40 percent), she also can shake and bake and create her own shots closer to the basket and is a skilled passer who was second in Division II in total assists (268).

Though overlooked by the WNBA, Johnson has a positive outlook about her new adventure.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to play professional ball,” she said. “I’m excited about embracing a new culture and learning a new language.”

Johnson, a Chicago native, is now experiencing Nordic weather firsthand.

“In the beginning, there was no big adjustments, but as the seasons change, the weather is extremely different,” she said Tuesday. The forecast for Wednesday showed a low of 31 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.11 Celsius) and a high of 43 F (6.1 Celsius) – a typical October day in Forssa.

“Also, the sun is not out much,” Johnson said. “[Tuesday] is the first day in a couple weeks that I’ve seen the sun. Aside from that, I am adjusting pretty well.”

Sure she is, by setting fire to the ice.

A highly sought-after recruit in high school, she started 58 games at Michigan State before leaving the team. She then sat out for a year, enrolling at Virginia Union at the start of the 2015-16 season.

 

Michigan State guard Kiana Johnson (0) brings the ball downcourt during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013.

Michigan State guard Kiana Johnson (0) brings the ball downcourt during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

 

Gilbert, who had been head coach at Eastern Michigan before stepping down in 2012 amid NCAA allegations over practice times and voluntary workouts, helped Johnson land in Richmond, Virginia.

When Johnson finally stepped on the court for the Panthers, it seemed as if she had not missed a step.

In one of her highest-profile outings — three games in the CIAA tournament in February — Johnson scored 28, 42 and 32 points. In one stretch, she made 18 straight free throws.

She was also a first team All-America for leading the Panthers to a 28-3 record and the deep NCAA Division II tournament run. For the Panthers, it was their first CIAA title since 1983.

Upon signing Johnson last summer, the coach of Forssan Alku knew the team had gotten a really good player.

“We are happy to have signed Kiana as our first American player this season and look forward to building the team around such a talented player,” coach Jari Marjamaki said. The team finished fourth in the league last season.

Johnson’s agent, Matthew C. Krejci of MK Sports and Entertainment, in Dublin, Ohio, said the Finnish league usually has 25 or more American players spread among its nine teams.

“It will be a good test for Kiana,” Krejci said, “but I believe she will shine on the court and put up big numbers as she did last year at Virginia Union.”

Gilbert explained the qualities that make Johnson a unique talent.

“Kiana is the most competitive player I have ever coached,” said Gilbert, who arrived in Richmond before the 2015-16 season.

“She has a tremendous killer instinct, a superhigh IQ, and she makes everyone around her better,” Gilbert said last summer. “Kiana was also our team’s hardest worker. She is a complete player who can do it all, plays both sides of the ball, and truly knows how to lead a team.

“I am so happy that the team she is going to wants to shape their organization around her. They believe she can lead them to championship success.”

Gilbert also predicted that in Finland, Johnson would “show that she deserves a shot in the WNBA.”

Gilbert said that Johnson had some inquiries from WNBA teams and one team even told her to keep her bags packed. The follow-up phone call never came, giving Johnson a chance to super-size her frequent-flier miles.

“That’s in God’s hands,” Johnson said of a future in the WNBA. “If I get there, it’ll be great for my family, friends and support system for them to be able to see me play.

“Right now my only goal is to win a championship for Forssan Alku club.”

Her personal goals are to “get better as an overall player, learn more about the game, become more efficient, commit fewer turnovers and become a better leader/person on and off the court.”

“As a professional, I want to come in and look like a vet,” she said. “I want to make the right decisions, build positive relationships and enjoy this experience I’ve been blessed to have.”

Last season was special

She will long remember the friends who helped her create a storybook season at Virginia Union.

Her fondest memories from her senior year, she said, include “being able to make history,” force other CIAA teams to be better, and “battling with my teammates night in and night out.”

“In the beginning of the season, we made a bond and became a family,” Johnson said. “Nothing can compare to that.”

With Johnson gone, the Panthers will rely more on Walker, a fifth-year senior who was CIAA Defensive Player of the Year and third-team All American.

Walker averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds last season, scored a career-high 35 points in a game and set the school record with 37 rebounds in another.

Gilbert said this year’s team will “showcase some very talented newcomers,” and their goal is to repeat as CIAA champions and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s not empty talk. At Eastern Michigan, Gilbert won a Mid-American Tournament division title, a MAC tournament championship and led the team to its second NCAA tournament appearance in program history.

Still, Gilbert knows a key piece will be missed.

“You don’t ‘replace’ a player like Kiana Johnson,” Gilbert said.

David R. Squires is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Petersburg Times. He's also a former editor-in-chief of BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine, a former Black Enterprise writer and editor and NUTribemagazine.com managing editor.