As reporters swarmed some prospects at the NBA Draft Combine, Alize Johnson calmly sat in a stool behind a small round table. He watched as other players received questions about their favorable draft prospects, while he had no media horde of his own.
The former Missouri State star, a projected second-round pick in the June 21 draft, wasn’t upset, though. He was just happy to be there.
Even with a strong senior season that saw him average 15 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, Johnson’s season wasn’t what he expected. He was the Missouri Valley Conference preseason player of the year and his team was picked to win the league, but the Bears finished tied for seventh, which led to a coaching change. Johnson wasn’t sure he’d get asked to the combine.
He didn't participate in the Portsmouth Invitational, which is for the top NBA prospects in the senior class.
“I’m blessed to be here,” he said while sitting in his lonely corner of the combine media room.
Johnson made the most of his opportunity at the combine — scoring a combined 24 points with 19 total rebounds and eight assists in his two five-on-five games. But he still faces an uphill battle as a non-Power Five prospect.
The Williamsport, Pa., native measured at 6 feet 8 with shoes on, but he had a wingspan of just 6-9 — small for a player of his size.
While at the combine, Johnson met with the Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks. He’s recently worked out for the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Johnson hopes to sell teams on his do-it-all skillset, which fits well into the modern NBA game. He was just 5 feet 9 when he entered high school, so he has all the skills of a guard, but now he has a forward’s body and possesses three-point shooting ability.
“He’s versatile and he’s not dependent upon one particular thing,” said Paul Lusk, Johnson’s coach at Missouri State. “If that one thing’s not working, for a lot of guys, are they valuable? I think he does a multitude of things that makes him a very valuable player.”
Johnson declared for the draft as a junior for the sole purpose of getting feedback from pro teams. Despite Lusk working the phones tirelessly to get him workouts with teams, the Boston Celtics were the only one to follow through.
Both Johnson’s scoring and rebounding averages improved from his junior to senior seasons. His free-throw percentage also went up nearly 10 percent. Johnson’s three-point shooting dropped nearly 10 percent, but he attributed that to taking 43 more threes.
“When I got in (junior year) I kind of freelanced and just did my thing,” said Johnson, who spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Frank Phillips Junior College in Texas. “I didn’t have a huge role, I was just trying to go in and do the little things.”
Lusk, now an assistant coach at Creighton after losing his job at Missouri State, was present at the combine to cheer on Johnson.
New Bears coach Dana Ford had top assistant Corey Gipson present in the stands as well, with the new regime understanding that Johnson’s success in the pros would be good publicity for the program.
Possibly Johnson’s biggest knock is that he played in the Valley. An NBA scout told The Star that Johnson would be a higher pick if he put up the same numbers in a Power Five conference.
Johnson said he told teams in player interviews during the combine that Loyola Chicago’s Final Four run is proof that the Valley is underrated.
“It's one of those conferences that don’t get recognition like they should,” he said. ”That’s why every team in that conference goes hard. They understand it’s only a one-team bid.”
The scout said that Johnson showed that he can play in the modern NBA, but isn’t sure what it means for his draft position. Scouts can’t publicly comment on players they evaluate.
“I think he helped himself because he showed that he can aggressively get to the basket, rebound, pass and shoot it,” the scout said. “He can do a bit of everything for someone of his size, even despite his short arms.”
Johnson will ultimately learn his fate in a few weeks. He still likes his chances of making a team, regardless of whether he is drafted or signed as a free agent.
He’s always felt comfortable flying under the radar.