Kansas State University

D.J. Johnson returns focus to basketball after NFL tryout

K-State forward D.J. Johnson looks for a route the basket against TCU last season.
K-State forward D.J. Johnson looks for a route the basket against TCU last season. The Wichita Eagle

The last two months have been a whirlwind of activity for former Kansas State forward D.J. Johnson.

Since NFL teams surprisingly showed interest in the 6-foot-9 physical big man after five years of college basketball, Johnson has trained like a football player. He has learned the ins and outs of defensive end and attended the Chicago Bears’ rookie minicamp.

Now, in what figured to be his down time, he is touring the Sunflower State and meeting K-State fans as part of the school’s annual Catbackers Tour.

But things are about to get simpler.

“It will be pretty hard to get on a 90-man roster for NFL training camp,” Johnson said this week. “My plan is to get back to playing basketball and training and hopefully playing in the NBA Summer League. That is where my focus is now.”

Johnson once again has eyes on basketball after flirting with football.

A former multi-sport athlete at Parkway North High School in St. Louis, Johnson decided the opportunity to try out for a NFL team was too good to pass up. He didn’t want to have any regrets, so he delayed plans to try and impress NBA teams and spent his April days working out with former K-State football players in Manhattan.

Johnson spoke with a handful of NFL scouts along the way and held a personal pro day to show them what he could do on the football field. That earned him an invitation to rookie camp in Chicago. Coincidentally, former K-State basketball teammate Wesley Iwundu was across town at the NBA Draft Combine.

Johnson thought he played well with the Bears, saying their schemes were similar to what he ran in high school. He delivered some highlights. But it wasn’t enough to receive a contract or an invite back for training camp.

He wonders if his old basketball habits held him back.

“Their position coach was telling me I need to get my hands more on that tackle or tight end,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t using my hands enough while I was playing defensive end. That was probably the biggest challenge, because in the game I have been playing the last five years you don’t get to use your hands.

“If you do, it’s a foul, especially me being me. That’s a quick foul.”

Johnson is glad he gave football a try, but he must now play catch up on the basketball front. While other NBA hopefuls have been meeting with and working out for teams, Johnson has been out of the game.

He doesn’t even have an agent.

Still, he has stayed active and thinks he stands a good shot at earning a roster spot in the NBA Summer League. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds for the Wildcats as a senior, helping them win 21 games and reach the NCAA Tournament.

When healthy, he was one of the better forwards in the Big 12.

He hopes that will be enough to get back on the radar with a few teams. If not, he is open to playing professionally overseas or returning to K-State to finish his master’s degree and pursue a career in urban planning.

But, much like with football, he doesn’t want to have any regrets. For now, he’s all-in with basketball.

“I just want an opportunity in the NBA Summer League,” Johnson said. “I know I can make things happen after that. That’s all I need, just one opportunity.”

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett

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