Markell Johnson’s return from suspension and his increased role in N.C. State’s offense has the Wolfpack climbing the league standings.
Johnson, a sophomore point guard who missed six games in December and January due to a suspension and one missed more game once he returned to the team, has produced double-digit assist totals in three of the five games he’s played since his return on Jan. 11. He had 14 assists in N.C. State’s 86-81 home loss to Miami on Jan. 21; 12 in the Wolfpack’s 72-68 road win over Pitt on Jan. 24; and 11 in the team’s 95-91 overtime win at UNC on Jan. 27.
“Markell’s return has helped everybody,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said. “Not so much because he can score and he can pass but It’s also taken the pressure off of Al Freeman and Braxton Beverly. They can play off the ball. They don’t have to worry about handling the ball as much. He’s made us better in every aspect.”
Guards Freeman, a graduate transfer, and Beverly, a freshman, have benefited.
During the seven games Johnson missed, the backcourt roles had to shuffle.
That meant Beverly, Freeman and freshman guard Lavar Batts helping with ball-handling duties.
Once Johnson’s suspension ended on Jan. 11, he stepped back into the main point guard role and everyone else moved off the ball and into better scoring positions. His first game back on the court was a 68-51 loss at Virginia on Jan. 14.
The plan peaked at UNC on Jan. 27, when Freeman hit all seven of his 3-pointers on his way to scoring 29 points. Johnson had 11 assists.
“He can just play off the ball and score the basketball,” Keatts said of Freeman.
The plan going forward is for that to be true for the whole team, not just Freeman.
N.C. State is a 45.7 percent shooting team overall, including 33.5 percent on 3-pointers. Keatts, though, repeatedly has said his team shoots well in practice. The key to transforming it into games comes “when we get the right guys in the right spots,” he said.
“I’ve always said this, a good passing team is a good shooting team,” Keatts said. “So when we pass the ball, when we make the extra pass and our guys are able to get their feet set, we shoot the ball well.”
Johnson’s job is to help make that happen. But, at the same time, Keatts wants him to look to score too.
In his first four games he played following his reinstatement (at Virginia, vs. Wake Forest, vs. Miami, at Pitt), Johnson attempted four or fewer shots three times (at Virginia, vs. Wake, vs. Miami). Twice he went scoreless (at Virginia, vs. Miami).
He racked up 35 assists over those four games, but scored just 18 points. While a high number of assists puts Johnson in good standing on what Keatts and his staff call the team’s “winner’s stats,” the scoring needs to be better.
“He’ll come in and pass the ball and, if he leaves the game and he has 15 assists and no points, he’s happy,” Keatts said. “I love that about him but I also told him, ‘In the position you are in with this particular team, we need him to score the ball also.’”
Against UNC, Johnson became more aggressive with his own scoring chances. He scored 20 points and had 11 assists.
His biggest plays came when the game was on the line.
Johnson’s drive, with help from a screen from 7-0, 245-pound sophomore center Omer Yurtseven, for a basket with 10 seconds left in regulation time put the Wolfpack up 83-81 over the Tar Heels.
“Markell was very aggressive at times,” Keatts said. “In pick-and-roll situations, he’s not been very aggressive. I thought he was aggressive (at UNC).”
Johnson added seven points in overtime, hitting all four of his free throws.
His 3-pointer put the Wolfpack ahead for good at 88-85. His two free throws with three seconds left sealed the 95-91 win.
“Playing with confidence,” Johnson said. “My coaches always believed in me. It just clicked in today. From here on out, my confidence is going to go up.”
If Johnson’s production keeps going up, the Wolfpack might not have to worry about bubble talk come NCAA tournament selection Sunday on March 11.