N.C. State did better than simply survive while Markell Johnson missed seven games due to a suspension.
The Wolfpack thrived by knocking off a pair of top-25 opponents without its starting point guard.
But Thursday night, Johnson reminded the Wolfpack and the rest of the ACC what he’s capable of providing.
Playing at PNC Arena for the first time since Dec. 2, Johnson scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and added four assists, two steals and a blocked shot in helping the Wolfpack beat Wake Forest 72-63.
“I’m back,” Johnson said. “I feel a lot better. I’m back.”
Only a week earlier, Johnson’s world had changed for the better.
On Jan. 11, the felony assault charge he faced in Cleveland, Ohio, was dismissed by the prosecutor.
Having been suspended since Dec. 14, Johnson was free to return to the N.C. State Wolfpack.
He never doubted the day would come.
“Nah,” Johnson said. “I mean I never thought I wasn’t going to come back. When it first happened, I already knew I would be back because of the situation.”
The situation was a fight in Cleveland back on Oct. 8 when Johnson was back in his hometown during N.C. State’s fall break. Johnson and three other Cleveland men weren’t indicted on the assault charges until Dec. 5. Nine days later, N.C. State’s athletic department learned of the charges and, per the school’s student-athlete code of conduct, that meant an automatic suspension for Johnson.
He left Raleigh after not playing in N.C. State’s Dec. 16 loss to UNC Greensboro, returning to Cleveland to deal with his legal situation. Over the next three weeks, he didn’t practice with the team or play in games.
He said he played basketball every day while out though.
“I’m a basketball player,” Johnson said. “I’m going to play ball every day.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, Johnson is as well-conditioned as his teammates who went through all those practices and games without him.
Though he had three fouls, Johnson played the final 7:41 of Thursday night’s win over Wake Forest without being subbed out. He helped the Wolfpack end the game on an 11-0 run to rally for the win. But he admits he felt the fatigue.
“For me, I feel like I’m getting more in shape,” Johnson said. “I know my teammates. I know they didn’t feel it, but I kind of felt it.”
Johnson returned to practice on Jan. 12. Two days later, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts played Johnson 23 minutes in last Sunday’s 68-51 loss at No. 2 Virginia. Johnson didn’t score but led the team with five assists.
“Obviously he’s not in great shape,” Keatts said. “... But he’s coming along. His conditioning is getting better.”
Johnson played 27 minutes against Wake Forest. Obviously the Demon Deacons aren’t nearly as strong a defensive team as Virginia. But Johnson gets credit for taking advantage by stuffing the stat sheet and helping the Wolfpack win.
“It’s probably the best feeling,” Johnson said. “From being at home and doing nothing, really, besides working out and playing basketball, to coming in here with my teammates from day one. It’s a good feeling.”
Johnson’s teammates praised him for bringing energy to practice as soon as he returned. Keatts said he’s been nothing but a positive.
“Anytime you go through some adversity it helps you grow up in a way,” Keatts said. “He’s been a pleasure to be around.”
N.C. State went 4-3 in the games it played without Johnson. It beat Duke 96-85 when the Blue Devils were ranked No. 2 in the country and Clemson, 78-77, when the Tigers were No. 19.
“It was very hard watching them play without me,” Johnson said. “It was very hard. But I got back and just got right into the rhythm and now I’m ready to roll.”
Johnson’s play on Thursday night kept the Wolfpack unbeaten in its three ACC games at PNC Arena.
N.C. State stays at home this weekend, facing No. 25 Miami at noon on Sunday at PNC. With Johnson back and contributing, the Wolfpack’s chances for toppling yet another ranked team are even better.