Near the end of his sophomore season, D.J. Johnson quietly let his teammates know he intended to take on a leadership position within Kansas State’s basketball locker room.
The 6-foot-9 forward wanted to create a more focused atmosphere before games and during practice, and he was willing to put in extra effort to make it happen.
Then he broke his foot during a NCAA Tournament game against Kentucky, and his plan disintegrated. The injury required two surgeries and kept him off the court for 16 months. Instead of setting an example in practice with hard work, he limped around campus on one leg and watched in horror last season as the Wildcats suffered their first losing season in a decade.
He attended every home game while sitting out with a medical redshirt. But it felt like he wasn’t on the team at all.
“I can only yell at them so much from the bench,” Johnson said before moving on to another thought.
“I hope I could have helped out the team a lot.I rebounded and energy was one thing we lacked last year. Nino (Williams) and those other guys could only do so much. We needed another big. That could have helped. I think that could have been me.”
Johnson can redeem himself this season. Finally healthy and taking part in practices for the first time since March 2014, K-State coach Bruce Weber refers to Johnson as the team’s X-factor.
The St. Louis native with dreadlocks has developed a bit of a cult following since he last played. After signing with the Wildcats late in 2012 as an unheralded recruit, he rarely playing as a freshman and averaged 3.5 points and 3.5 rebounds as a sophomore. Many at K-State think he was sorely missed last season.
Weber said K-State could have made a run at 20 wins last season with a healthy Johnson.
“He is a big X-factor for us,” Weber said. “If we had had D.J. we would have won two or three more games, maybe even more, because of his energy level.”
Johnson was projected to come off the bench behind Thomas Gipson last season and he will likely come off the bench this season to replace Stephen Hurt.
But he may be the team’s best rebounder, and the closest thing Weber has to a back-to-the-basket forward with experience fighting inside against Big 12 players. Johnson certainly plays with energy. His return will be noticeable.
“He has been an absolute animal,” freshman guard Barry Brown said. “He is great on the boards, great on the put backs and a great person to know if you want a screen. He is a very active shot blocker. He has been really good.”
Weber will try and take things easy on Johnson, at least at the beginning of the season. He plans to play him no more than 12 minutes in K-State’s first exhibition game and may not let him play more than 20 minutes until the season is well underway.
“We have got to make sure we look at the long term with him,” Weber said, “and make sure he is healthy the whole season.”
If it were up to Johnson, he would play all the time right now.
He has lost weight since his sophomore season and his stamina is up. He is ready to make up for lost time.
After a long layoff, the season-opener can’t get here soon enough.
“It is probably going to be one of the happiest parts of my year,” Johnson said.
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett