Until two days before N.C. State’s game at Virginia on Sunday, Markell Johnson hadn’t practiced with the Wolfpack in nearly a month. The sophomore guard certainly wasn’t in position to make a big impact against the defensively tough Cavaliers.
Against Virginia, however, Johnson contributed five of N.C. State’s seven assists in a 68-51 loss – a testament to how much the Wolfpack missed Johnson. It also gave insight into what he can provide the rest of the season.
Johnson started N.C. State’s first 10 games at point guard before he was suspended following a grand jury indictment on felony assault charges in Cleveland. When an Ohio prosecutor dismissed the charges last Thursday, Johnson returned to the Wolfpack after missing seven games.
While he was gone, freshmen guards Braxton Beverly and Lavar Batts were left to handle all the minutes at point guard.
Beverly played all 40 minutes in an 88-58 loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 3 and averaged 35.2 minutes per game over N.C. State’s four ACC games without Johnson,
Batts played 29 and 27 minutes in N.C. State’s two games with Clemson, which the Wolfpack split. He averaged 23 minutes per game in ACC play prior to Johnson’s return.
Even shooting guard Allerik Freeman bore the brunt of Johnson’s absence. He averaged 36.5 minutes in N.C. State’s first four ACC games.
So simply having Johnson for 23 minutes against Virginia, even though he missed his only two shots and didn’t score, was a big boost to the Wolfpack.
“It gives us the ability to be able to rest some guys,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “Before this, Braxton and Al Freeman, both of those guys were playing a lot of minutes. I’d like to be able to chop some of those minutes off and be able to get Markell back in.”
Through N.C. State’s first five ACC games, according to kenpom.com, Beverly has played 79 percent of the minutes at point guard, followed by 11 percent for Batts and 10 percent for Johnson.
At shooting guard, Batts has played 44 percent of the minutes followed by Freeman (30 percent), Sam Hunt (20) and Beverly (six).
At 59 percent, Freeman has seen the most minutes at small forward followed by Torin Dorn (34) and Hunt (six).
With Johnson back and able to handle 30-plus minutes at point guard and some at shooting guard, that allows Beverly to slide over to shooting guard, likely taking minutes away from Hunt. Batts, playing well with 10 assists and just one turnover in ACC play, would get minutes behind Johnson at point guard
Freeman can toggle between the shooting guard and small forward positions with the versatile Dorn able to split his minutes between small forward and power forward.
Batts said Johnson brought plenty of energy to the team when he returned to practice last Friday. Dorn concurred.
“Markell brings great energy, great intensity, his defense will be something to be reckoned with,” Dorn said. “He’s a great passer. We get a guy who wants to win and makes all the right plays.”
Yes, Johnson’s return should help the Wolfpack on both ends of the court. Keatts needs as many guards as he can get to run his pressure-packed style.
For selected minutes in the Virginia game, Keatts even used Batts, Johnson and Beverly together. That set up allows the Wolfpack to increase its defensive pressure on opposing backcourts.
The Wolfpack is in a key point of the season. Having survived a tough opening stretch of ACC games, N.C. State (12-6, 2-3 ACC) plays home games with Wake Forest on Thursday and No. 25 Miami on Sunday before heading to last-place Pittsburgh on Jan. 24.
N.C. State has a chance to grab a couple of wins, at least, in this stretch. Johnson’s return makes getting them a higher probability.
Wake Forest at NC State
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
TV: ACC Network