In the first half of Missouri State’s game against Hampton in early December, 6-foot-9 Alize Johnson fought off a defender for a rebound, brought the ball up the court and fed a perfect bounce pass between two defenders to a teammate. Johnson quickly got the ball back and drained his fourth three — seven minutes before halftime.
Plays like that have the Bears 11-3 going into Sunday’s game against Valparaiso, and NBA executives are salivating over Johnson, who is trying to lead Missouri State to its first NCAA Tournament since 1999.
A guard in a forward’s body, Johnson is the state’s best NBA prospect not named Michael Porter Jr., who is currently sidelined for the Missouri Tigers because of a back injury.
Except unlike Porter Jr., Johnson wasn’t on NBA radars when he was in high school. He wasn’t even on most colleges’ radars because of academic issues.
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But a massive growth spurt and a junior-college detour later led Johnson to Springfield, where he averaged a double-double for the Bears his junior year, which got him an invite to the prestigious Adidas Nations camp, an invite-only event that features the nation’s top high school and college players. Porter attended, and so did tons of scouts.
Johnson performed well at the camp, including when he went head-to-head against Porter. That sent pro scouts a message that Missouri Valley Conference coaches could’ve told them a year ago: There’s another potential first-round pick in Missouri.
Johnson entered St. John Neumann High School in Williamsport, Pa. as a 14-year-old 5-foot-9 point guard.
His quickness, passing and ball handling earned him a spot on the varsity team as a freshman. He later led the Golden Knights to a 30-1 record as a senior and was Pennsylvania's Mr. Basketball.
Over the course of his high school career, Johnson grew 8 inches and graduated at 6-5. His high school coach, Paul Petcavage, switched him from point guard to the wing.
Johnson’s growth spurt surprised those around him, including his mother, Chanelle, who once mistook her son for a burglar when she noticed a figure sleeping in a bed.
“I thought there was someone in the house,” she said. “I pushed him, and he took the covers off, and he said ‘Mom, it’s me.’”
Chanelle Johnson noticed a pattern with her son. During basketball season his grades were fine. He didn’t want to be academically ineligible or sit the bench for grade-related issues. But he didn’t maintain his grades during the offseason.
Low-level Division I schools such as St. Peters (N.J.), NJIT, St. Francis and Bucknell all expressed interest before seeing his transcripts.
Johnson didn’t qualify academically for Division I out of high school. So he moved to Texas.
Johnson arrived at Frank Phillips Community College in Borger, Texas as a 6-foot-5, 180-pound wing.
Frank Phillips coach Chris Hackett promised Chanelle Johnson that her son’s two years there would be “books and ball.” It wasn’t until she went out to the Texas Panhandle two years later for his graduation that she realized what he experienced.
“It was Gilligan’s Island,” she said of Borger, which has a population of about 13,250 and is about 50 miles northeast of Amarillo.
While he was in junior college, Johnson finally got his grades together. He also added 20 pounds of muscle.
He said that because the town didn’t have too many sources for entertainment, he was able to figure out his life by focusing on school and basketball.
“If you wanted to have fun, you had to drive an hour away,” Johnson said. “That’s where the mall was.”
Oh, and he grew another 4 inches to reach his current height of 6-9.
Johnson averaged 16.7 points and 12 rebounds a game as a sophomore, and Frank Phillips earned its first regional bid since 2007.
While it’s tougher for big men to handle the ball, Johnson’s point guard skills stayed with him through all 12 inches he had grown since freshman year of high school. That makes him a mismatch for defenses.
“(My skills) stuck with me as I started growing,” Johnson said at Missouri Valley Conference media day at St. Louis in October. “So I just added things to my game. I just kept growing up, at my height it’s not common for a player to be able to dribble. And my speed stuck with me.”
Jonhson’s play netted him over 20 scholarship offers, with the majority of them being low- to mid-major schools. Hackett said Iowa was one of the only Power Five teams he remembers showing interest.
Missouri State coach Paul Lusk first became aware of Johnson after Hackett, who was a manager at Missouri Southern when Lusk coached there, sent him an email that included his star players’ highlights.
Lusk needed a power forward.
During the recruiting process, Lusk made no promises to Johnson about starting or playing time. He emphasized the “opportunity” Johnson would have to make an impact.
“(Lusk) was talking our kind of talk,” Chanelle Johnson said. “Alize has never played for the big schools. He’s also played low and built a team up. That’s always been his calling. So I was attracted to that. Missouri State was perfect. I don’t like promises. He’s going to work.”
Shortly after he arrived in Springfield, Johnson was winded after a workout with the team. Johnson told his coach that he didn’t want to go through another transition at Missouri State after already going through one when he got to junior college.
Johnson said it already took him time to adjust from the high school game to junior college. With only two years of eligibility, Johnson didn’t want to waste any time adjusting to Division I.
“Buckle up,” Lusk told Johnson.
Instead of complaining, he embraced the process. He lived in the gym just like he did in high school and at Frank Phillips. He made an impact faster than Lusk ever anticipated.
Johnson averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as a junior while shooting 38 percent from three. At the end of the season, he declared for the NBA Draft but only to get feedback from pro scouts. The Boston Celtics were the only team to work out Johnson.
“I’ll bet right now a lot of those teams that didn’t work him out, wish they would’ve brought him in,” Lusk said.
Johnson said people began to recognize him more often after Adidas Nations, whether it was at airports or other campuses when he went to visit friends.
When he came to Columbia in September for the Bears football game against Mizzou, he was surprised how many people were recognizing him compared to Porter, who he worked out and hung out with while in town.
“A year ago nobody knew who I was. I never forget where I was a year ago,” Johnson said. “That just makes me stay level-headed and grounded because I wasn’t in this position. It’s nice to be in this position, but I still want to work and get better.”
He hasn’t forgotten about some of the people who didn’t take him seriously when he told them years ago that he’d playing professionally at some point.
Mock drafts currently have Johnson going late in the first round of next summer’s NBA Draft, while others have him going early in the second round or a little lower. One NBA scout told The Star it’s too early to project where Johnson goes, but his work ethic and physical tools have scouts interested.
Hackett said Johnson is one of the best success stories he’s ever had as a coach and his work ethic has taken him places he never imagined.
“If you asked me was he going to get drafted, I would have had a hard time saying yes,” he said. “He beats every challenge that’s presented to him.”