Freshman point guard Johnnie Vassar can be classified many different ways: He’s a sharpshooter from long and short range, with “RIDICULOUS” vertical ability to boot. He’s a sharp passer with good floor vision, especially in the paint. According to head coach Chris Collins, he’s Northwestern’s best on-ball defender. But before he began his career in Evanston, he was a poster boy for the archetypal hero’s journey (take a minute to dig through your AP English Language notes so you can follow along).
Vassar received his “call to adventure” at the start of high school, leaving his hometown of Chicago to go to Lawrence Academy about an hour northwest of Boston. Homesickness drove him to transfer after his freshman year to La Lumiere in Indiana, just about an hour east around the coast of Lake Michigan from home. However, he finished his sophomore academic year through homeschooling after deciding that La Lumiere was not the right fit.
As a junior, Vassar went on to Milton High School in a northern suburb of Atlanta. But the basketball coach at Milton was forced to resign due to allegations of recruiting violations soon after Vassar’s arrival, so the young man went west, specifically to JSerra Catholic High School near Los Angeles for his junior and senior seasons. Vassar said that despite the turbulence of his high school career, he took the constant influx of new experiences, which you might characterize as “challenges," in stride.
“I’m a firm believer in God puts certain things in front of you for a reason,” Vassar said. “It was all a learning experience for me. I [looked at it as having to] learn how to adapt to new situations, new coaching and [how to] make new friends.”
Just like any hero on his or her archetypal journey, Vassar had a guiding group of “helpers” who led him out of the “abyss,” the recruiting process: Northwestern coaches and players. Circumventing the “transformation” and “atonement” stages, those “helpers” influenced Vassar to turn down recruiting offers from USC, SMU and UTEP and “return” to his home, Chicagoland. In the end of the journey from the “unknown” back to the “known,” he situated himself closer to his family, something he said definitely played a role in his decision to come play for Northwestern last December. He said he suspects that his great-grandmother, mother and sisters will attend every home game this season.
As Vassar officially enters the realm of college basketball, it’s not off base to expect him to progress through another type of hero’s journey, even if he’s not redefining home seemingly every year like he did in the first go-round. Collins said (without using hero’s journey jargon) that he expects the young point guard’s maturation as a player will not come without a new set of archetypal challenges and temptations, even though he respects the talent he brings to the table.
“He’s still learning since he’s a young player, so he’s going to make some mistakes,” Collins said. “But he can do things that nobody else on our team can do.”
Vassar is likely to be used as a bench player this year, backing up freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, who led the team in minutes with 25 in the ‘Cats’ season-opening exhibition against McKendree. Vassar only played for 10 minutes, but he was very active during that short amount of time, going 2-of-4 from the field, making his only 3-point attempt and dishing out two assists. Collins said he has been competing hard with all of the other guards in practice, so perhaps he is primed for a sub-journey into the starting lineup, a challenge he is very well equipped for.
“He brings a new dimension to our team with his speed, quickness and explosiveness,” Collins said. “He’s a guy who can change the pace of a game.”
As Northwestern seeks its first ever NCAA Tournament bid and looks to make a program-wide hero’s journey out of the austere, known land of the “outside looking in,” Vassar seems like just the type of player who can help his school finally climb out of its 75-year “abyss.”
Expectations are high on Vassar and his fellow highly talented recruits, especially given the length of the drought. But maybe, on a symbolic level, that’s precisely what Vassar’s first personal hero’s journey was preparing him for all along: reaching and exceeding those expectations, and aiding in his program’s “rebirth.”
“For me personally, I don’t feel [pressure],” he said. “I don’t know when [making the tournament] is going to happen, but we definitely have the pieces right now. We want to make history.”