Ask 100 college basketball players if they want to be part of their team’s starting lineup and you are likely get 100 identical responses.
But there are rare exceptions when a player will campaign to come off the bench.
Case in point: Kansas State junior forward D.J. Johnson. He was not pleased when Bruce Weber informed him last week that he was moving into the Wildcats’ starting five after 22 games as a reserve.
“I hate starting,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I am so used to coming off the bench. Even now in practice, I still go off with the second group starting off, or at least try to go off with the second group. They have to remind me I am with the first group. It is an adjustment, but if it means that it is going to help us play a little bit better, then I am OK with it.”
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Johnson’s time as a reluctant starter is unlikely to end anytime soon. So far, both player and team have benefited from the change. Johnson scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his first game as a starter, against Oklahoma, helping the Wildcats upset the nation’s then-No. 1 team. He followed that performance with a career-high 19 points and eight rebounds in an 82-72 loss to No. 21 Baylor.
Weber moved Johnson into the starting lineup to motivate freshman forward Dean Wade, hoping Wade would bust out of a shooting slump as a reserve. Instead, the change seems to have fired up Johnson.
“D.J. has come a long way,” Weber said. “I am happy for him. He cares, and he works hard. The only thing is, I wish he could practice a little more. It would help us. But we are still getting some great minutes out of him.”
It’s been a slow climb for Johnson. He contributed little as a freshman, but appeared to be on his way as a sophomore until he broke his foot during a NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky. The injury sidelined him for an entire year, and K-State coaches were hesitant to play him when he was cleared for action this season.
Perhaps it is finally time to stop easing him back into games.
“I sat out for a while,” Johnson said, “but I am just getting my legs under me. I practice pretty much every day just like everyone else. Some reps I take off. Some drills I don’t do. That is for the benefit of me, I guess, just not doing as much pounding as everyone else.”
Not only did he play 32 minutes against Baylor, he flashed more energy inside than any other big man on the floor, continually fighting for rebounds and muscling his way past defenders for close-range baskets.
It wasn’t enough for K-State to win, as the Wildcats struggled to make shots elsewhere, but Johnson helped keep the game close. They will need more of that against Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“We have to continue to get the ball inside whenever we can,” Weber said.
K-State will also need to regain the intensity it showed against Oklahoma. The Wildcats have lost 12 straight conference road games, and will need to play better than they did against Baylor to end that streak.
Johnson says he will do his best to motivate teammates, even though that means staying in the starting lineup.
“Getting this road win is going to be really big for us, a big step,” Johnson said. “We need two or three road wins. Our ultimate goal is to make the NCAA Tournament. We have got to make a run here late.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett