Where would Kansas State’s basketball team be without D.J. Johnson?
Coach Bruce Weber once came frighteningly close to answering.
Before Johnson became the senior leader, trusted inside scorer and leading rebounder he is for the Wildcats today, he was a young and injured reserve struggling to find a role in K-State’s rotation. It was a frustrating existence, and he tried to walk away from it two years ago. Feeling like his skills were regressing after taking a season off to undergo surgeries and recover from a broken foot, Johnson scheduled a meeting with Weber and told him he was quitting.
“My stomach was in a knot,” Weber said. “Here’s a player we all believed in, a player we knew was on the verge of becoming special, a player we missed and were really looking forward to getting back for two seasons. Out of nowhere, he tells us he’s done. I went home that night and couldn’t sleep.”
Stressing patience, Weber eventually convinced Johnson to remain on the team and helped him develop into an integral member of K-State’s starting lineup.
As a senior, Johnson has arguably been K-State’s MVP. The 6-foot-8, 237-pounder is averaging 11.5 points and 6.4 rebounds as the team’s true inside presence. He scored a career-high 26 points against Maryland, led K-State to a win over Colorado State with 19 points and 10 rebounds, and made countless pivotal plays in other games to help the No. 25 Wildcats (13-3, 2-2 Big 12) earn their first ranking in three years.
With a team-high 62-percent shooting, he shook his head in disgust following a 21-point, 10-rebound effort against Saint Louis earlier this season. Sure, he played great and K-State won big, but he made 10 of 11 shots. He wanted all 11.
“This is just me liking the game more,” Johnson said. “I think I did a good job last year moving within the offense and I carried that with me. I am more of a threat in the post, something other than just running out of transition and dunking the ball.”
Double-teaming the physical big man with dreadlocks tied behind his head has become a priority for opponents.
“He is definitely more of a threat on the inside now,” senior teammate Wesley Iwundu said. “He can do a lot more than he has shown in the past, and I think that is just a big-time help to his game and opening up the door for our perimeter players to be able to shoot he ball. D.J. is so good on the inside it is tough to stop him. Getting the ball to him makes the game a lot easier.”
This is what Weber envisioned from Johnson when he talked him out of quitting.
Though Johnson did little in his first two seasons with the Wildcats (averaging 2.9 points and 3 rebounds in 63 games), his absence was noticeable during the 2014-15 season. K-State won 20-plus games and reached the NCAA Tournament in each of Weber’s first two seasons, but dropped to 15-17 with Johnson hobbling around Bramlage Coliseum with a broken foot. That team had major discipline problems and lacked size. Weber suggests a healthy Johnson could have made a huge difference.
There is no doubt the Wildcats are better off with Johnson. Bench him for even a few minutes and they scramble to replace him.
“Losing him for any amount of time is a big deal,” K-State associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “He’s our hustle guy. He’s our big guy. He does it all.”
Lowery saw glimpses of that potential when he recruited Johnson out of St. Louis, back when he went by Darrell and weighed nearly 260 pounds, but he knew Johnson wasn’t going to be an overnight success. Johnson also played football (defensive end and tight end) in high school and couldn’t decide which sport to focus on in college.
He even hoped to play football for one season at K-State after his basketball eligibility expired.
“We might have seen him playing for Bill Snyder if he hadn’t gotten injured,” Weber said.
That mindset scared away some college colleges. They viewed Johnson as a project. But it made K-State coaches want him even more.
“He had a high, high motor that we could develop,” Lowery said. “When you see a kid who works really hard like that who has never focused on one sport you know you have a chance, because you can really hone him in and teach him one sport.”
Five years later, Johnson has learned to play basketball with the aggressiveness of a football player.
His steady improvement has boosted a K-State team that can’t imagine playing without him.
“We’re all glad he decided to stick with us,” Weber said. “He was down on himself, but we stayed very optimistic with him and told him to give it more time, to come back tomorrow and see how much better things can go. Eventually, he got his confidence back and started having fun. That’s when he really started to improve. Look at him now.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett