The Wolfpacker

November 2019

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 32 of 139

NOVEMBER 2019 ■ 31 BASKETBALL PREVIEW 2019-20 BY MATT CARTER N C State senior basketball guard Markell Johnson was one of the most popular players for interviews at the Wolfpack's annual hoops media day, and he was fine with that attention. That's a far cry from four years ago, but a lot has changed about Johnson during that time. The player who readily admits he didn't foresee himself being a four-year player in college is embracing being a leader while striving to prove himself to NBA scouts who last spring fueled his decision to return to college for one more season rather than pursue his pro ambitions. In the process, NC State retained one of the best point guards in the ACC. Two years ago, Johnson led the conference in assists at 7.3 per game. Last year, he be- came a reliable scorer for the Pack, averag- ing 12.6 points per contest. Over his prior three seasons, Johnson went from a shaky shooter who made just 25.0 percent (12 of 48) of his three-pointers as a freshman to converting a team-best 42.2 percent (68 of 161) as a junior. He made only 57.7 percent (15 of 26) of his free throws when he was a rookie, but im- proved to 74.7 percent (59 of 79) last year. That included making a pair with 2.6 seconds left in the first round of the ACC Tournament against Clemson with NC State trailing by a point. Johnson's success at the stripe gave the Pack a 59-58 come- from-behind win and kept its hope for a NCAA Tournament bid alive for another day. "He was tremendous," NC State head coach Kevin Keatts recalled. "We were down 16, and without the play of Markell Johnson we don't win the game." Johnson enters this season being dis- cussed as a potential first-team All-ACC contender. With that comes the attention he earned at media day. But the improved senior takes the spotlight in stride. "When I first got here I really wasn't comfortable with the media … but I feel like I have gotten a lot better with talking to the media, and more confident in myself," Johnson said. An Informed Decision To Return Perhaps no recent action by Johnson bet- ter explains his maturation over the past three years than his decision to come back for a fourth campaign for the Wolfpack. C.L. Brown of The Athletic dove into the topic of Johnson's NBA deliberations last spring for that website. What Brown learned was that in the past Johnson may have had trouble grabbing hold of his deci- sion-making process. Brown noted that colleges were often struggling to understand who was advising Johnson in his recruitment, whether it was this coach or that, or perhaps even a trainer. This time around, the decision was John- son's, with even his mother Sabrina John- son giving him his space. "She really wasn't leaning [one way or another]," Johnson noted. "It was just re- ally all on me. She wasn't forcing me to do anything like that." After three years in Raleigh, he was a long shot to get drafted. That has not stopped players in recent history from de- claring anyway. NC State has seen two recent examples of that: former All-ACC guard Trevor Lacey was okay with going to Europe if he didn't make the NBA after his redshirt junior year in 2014-15, and star class of 2019 signee Jalen Lecque took advantage of the draft rules that allowed him to skip college altogether, landing a contract with the Phoenix Suns after going undrafted. It struck Brown how much Johnson has changed to make the decision to come back to NC State. "Markell has matured in that sense that he obviously wants to play in the league, but he wasn't so bent on it that he was not taking good advice," Brown noted. "He doesn't have as many people in his ear. He's trimmed that list down. I think those were positive signs. I think he realized if he stayed in the draft he wouldn't be drafted in the NBA. "I'm one of these people where that's fine — if a kid wants to take a chance on himself, knows they're not going to be drafted, is ready to play in Europe or do something else, they're going to blaze their own trail, I'm fine with that. In Markell's case, he wants the NBA and feels like another year here helps his case, which I think is good because it was an informed decision." The feedback Johnson received was uni- versal: be more consistent. "Consistency is a big part of a lot of things, and that is one of my main focuses this year: to be consistent on the defensive end, on the offensive end and in every as- pect," Johnson noted. "… It's just staying locked in from the beginning to the end of the game." It's the same advice his coach gives him, too. "He has to figure out, and we have to fig- ure out, how to get him to play two halves," Keatts said. "I thought in some games, he was tremendous in the first half and then you didn't hear much about him. "And then [other times] he took over the games a lot, especially when we needed it." Taking Advantage Of The Opportunity Johnson's top goal for this season is to prove he is a pro, which will require him to showcase that he is one of the best point guards, not only in the ACC but in the coun- try. Keatts believes that Johnson can be one of the top five players in the league, i.e. first-team All-ACC. The se- nior does not back down from that. "I definitely believe that," Johnson said. "Everybody sets goals. That's definitely one of my goals to be first-team All-ACC and even to be one of the best point guards in the OLDER AND WISER Matured Senior Guard Markell Johnson Is Ready To Be The Pack's Leader "He is a talent. He could be in the NBA or playing some type of professional basketball somewhere. I like the fact that I have an older senior point guard that can certainly bring the younger guys along." ■ Head coach Kevin Keatts on Johnson

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