The bond between sisters is one of the strongest that can be found in human nature. For the Wisconsin women’s basketball team, the bond between redshirt junior forward Michala Johnson and her younger sister, freshman forward Malayna Johnson, has helped on and off the court. It played a large role two years ago when one of them got the other to come to Wisconsin, and it has improved both of their games on the court and their relationship off the court.
Hailing from Bellwood, Ill., a town about 13 miles outside of downtown Chicago, the Johnson sisters took very different paths to get to Madison. Coming out of high school, Michala was a blue-chip prospect who committed to play her collegiate career at powerhouse Connecticut. However, following two seasons in which she averaged just 5.1 minutes per game and wanting to play closer to home, Michala decided to transfer.
While Michala was deciding between schools to transfer to, Malayna had already committed to play for the Badgers and head coach Bobbie Kelsey. ESPN gave her a score of 91 out of 100 coming out of high school, making Malayna yet another blue-chip in the Johnson family.
And in a bit of a role reversal, the younger Malayna played the role of recruiter, trying to bring Michala’s talents to Madison two years ago.
“I committed [to Wisconsin] first, before [Michala] even thought about coming here,” Malayna said. “I like the campus, I like the coaches. I didn’t mind if Michala came here at all. So when she decided to transfer I told her, ‘What about Wisconsin? That would be cool if we got to play together.’”
Michala wasn’t originally going to come to Madison, and told Malayna that she would stay away if she didn’t want her on the same team.
“I wasn’t going to come [to Wisconsin] because Malayna was here,” Michala said. “I told her if you want me to come, I’ll come, but if not I’ll go somewhere else. In high school and AAU we played on the same team and we had the same coaches and they would always compare us two. They would tell her that she needs to do what your older sister is doing. And I said if you don’t want that again, I’ll go somewhere else, but then she said she wanted me to come with her.”
Luckily for Kelsey and the rest of the Badger team, Michala joined her sister and chose Wisconsin.
Michala currently leads the Badgers in scoring, averaging 16.9 points per game (6th in the Big Ten) while ranking second on the team with 7.3 rebounds (10th in the Big Ten). Her 55.1 field-goal percentage is also a team-high and good for third best in the conference. Michala’s 6-foot-3 height has wreaked havoc in the post for opposing teams as they usually employ a double-team simply to contain her. She has been instrumental in helping Wisconsin match last year’s win total in Big Ten play.
Malayna hasn’t had the impact that her older sister has, but it would be hard to match those numbers as just a freshman. Yet her playing time has increased in Big Ten play, as she now averages 6.1 minutes per game with even more playing time on the horizon.
She stands an inch taller than Michala at 6-foot-4, which is what drew Kelsey’s attention to her while Malayna was in high school.
“Well she’s 6-4, so it’s not hard to understand how she can affect the game,” Kelsey said. “She can change and alter shots. Other than that she’s smart, she picks up plays and schemes really well.”
“Now that [Malayna’s] been here long enough she can understand the basketball language,” Kelsey added. “She’s just finding herself out there more. So we’ll get her more minutes.”
What might be the most important thing, for the two sisters that is, is the ability to be with each other almost every day. Although they may not be attached at the hip, a bond between the two certainly exists that translates to the court.
Whether it’s watching each other to improve their own games, teaching one another on and off the court, or simply lending a helping hand, the sisterly bond is evident in the Johnsons’ play.
“We’re best friends,” Malayna said. “We hang out a lot, even at home. Our mom raised us to be best friends. Since we’re close off the court, we kind of have a vibe on the court too.”
“I’ve always tried to help her as best as I could,” Michala said. “She listens to me sometimes, but I can tell that now she’s gotten into college and started playing basketball she now understands what I’ve been telling her for a long time. But she’s stepped a lot. I mean she’s the only freshman that’s playing right now so she’s improved a lot.”
“On the court she knows my voice,” Michala added. “She knows I’ll be there to help her if she needs help with a double-team or anything like that.”
Next season could feature an all-Johnson front line for the Badgers but until then, they’ll continue to learn from one another. And although Malayna has improved this season with Michala’s help, there is little doubt as to which of the two sisters would win in a game of one-on-one against each other.
“Me,” Michala said. “Most definitely. Without a doubt. Every time.”