Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009 | University of San Diego sophomore point guard Trumaine Johnson acknowledges his stubbornness.

“I’m hard-headed,” Johnson said with a grin as he sat courtside after a recent practice at USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion. “Anybody will tell you that.”

USD coach Bill Grier is one of those “anybodys.” He says the trait frustrates him and his staff as they try to coach the Houston street ball out of Johnson to transition him into what he has rapidly become this season — one of the most explosive point guards in the West Coast Conference.

“In Houston, guys showboat a lot,” Johnson said. “I grew up watching guys shoot fadeaways. I had a lot of bad habits to break to refine my shot and my game.”

But Grier adds, “that’s also what makes him a good player.” The stubbornness makes The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder tenacious at both ends of the court. It makes him keep coming back for more.

Although Johnson admits to being hard-headed, he’s most definitely not thick-headed.

If he was, the Houston street ball might have taken over in the final tense moments of USD’s 55-50 win at Santa Clara on Jan. 11 when Santa Clara guard Perry Petty swung an elbow at Johnson’s head.

Because Johnson plays with WCC savvy rather than Houston street ball, he won’t be serving another suspension. He’ll be taking the floor Thursday when No. 22-ranked St. Mary’s (17-1, 4-0 WCC) and USD (12-7, 4-0 WCC) meet in a nationally televised game on ESPN2 that may be a sellout Thursday at the 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Here’s what happened: USD trailed 48-47 with 1:18 left in the game when Johnson pressed the Broncos’ Petty near midcourt. As Johnson reached in across Petty’s body and the referee called a foul on Johnson, Petty swung a high elbow at Johnson’s head to get him to back off.

Johnson took a menacing step toward Petty, but then suddenly slowed his pace and kept walking passively past Petty.

“I caught myself,” Johnson said. “My gut reaction was to go after him, but something stopped me. The suspension made me grow up. A lot of things flashed through my mind, but when I heard the whistle (signaling the technical), it snapped me out of it. Otherwise, I might not be here right now.”

That’s the defining moment in shedding his Houston street ball, and it can be traced back to Grier getting tough with him to start the season. Johnson was suspended for the first eight games for breaking team rules and sat him four more games. Johnson said the suspension was for skipping classes and similar infractions.

“He’s really grown and matured and started to take on accountability,” Grier said. “I want him to do things both on and off the floor the right way and be accountable for his actions. That’s the biggest thing that has come about from all this. He’s shown great maturity this past month.”

Since Johnson returned seven games ago, he has led the Toreros to six straight wins, including the school’s first 4-0 start in WCC play since joining the conference 30 years ago. He’s averaging 13.1 points, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals.

A year ago, when he was playing alongside All-WCC guard Brandon Johnson, he averaged 5.7 points in a supporting role while helping the Toreros win the WCC tournament and a first-round NCAA tournament upset of Connecticut.

But this year he’s been forced into a more commanding role after Brandon Johnson (no relation, although he’s also from Houston) went down for the year with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in the season’s eighth game.

He’s responded with more than the usual improvement expected from a freshman to sophomore season. He appears to have skipped his sophomore year to his junior season.

“His maturity has gone sky high, and he’s evolved into the player he should have been all along,” Brandon Johnson said. “Overall he’s become one of the best players in the conference, and I’d say one of the best sophomore guards in the country. I’m giving him that much respect.”

Those Houston street ball moves might have lowered scouts’ evaluation of Trumaine Johnson in high school, which made him still available when Grier was hired as USD’s new coach after the 2007 season.

Johnson had scholarship offers from Vanderbilt and Nevada during the November signing period of his senior year at Houston’s Kirkwood High, but when he waited too long to commit, both schools gave the scholarship to another player.

That’s how someone with his talent and rare quickness was still available to become Grier’s first recruit.

“It was hard for me to agree with Coach Grier at first, but he knows what he’s talking about,” Johnson said. “I didn’t understand why he was so hard on me, but he sat me down and talked to me. I realize now I’m his first recruit and I have to set an example. I take some pride in that.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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