Where are you going? Please don’t scroll past. Stop clicking away! I realize I have to explain myself, but I think I’m up to the task, and I hope that in doing so, I can convince an NBA executive to make an impulsive decision and draft one of the more exciting players I’ve had the pleasure of seeing play college basketball.
Let’s start with the handle. I’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who can dance around defenders like senior guard Markell Johnson can, whether it be with his hesitation moves or his crossover dribble. But it takes two to tango, and when Johnson decides to dance, he takes his opponents’ ankles with him too. I can’t really rely on stats here, so the only real way to prove this claim is to see it with your own eyes. Look at what Johnson does to the initial Clemson defender and then to the entire Tigers defense at 2:15 of this video from the ACC Youtube channel. It’s incredible.
In addition to keeping the ball on a string, Johnson is a wizard with a basketball — but he’s more like a cautious wizard that knows when to thread the needle and make the risky crosscourt pass, or when to opt for a safer, more conventional handoff to a teammate. He’s entered his senior season with a 2.11 assist-to-turnover ratio and 397 assists, good for seventh and 10th in NC State history, respectively.
If there’s anything to worry about with regards to Johnson, it’s his scoring ability. In the NBA today, names like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and James Harden hold sway because teams value point guards who can score in bunches. In order to compete on a nightly basis, teams are more likely to draft college players who’ve only played one or two years in college because of their potential for growth, as opposed to players who decide to stay in school.
Johnson averaged 12.6 points per game last year in his junior season. As of now, Johnson is averaging 12.8 points per game in his senior season.
And yet his potential for scoring more is still there. What Johnson lacks in prolific scoring, he more than makes up for in difficult, highlight-reel shots. Even though he’s shooting 27% from the 3-point line this season, he’s still a 36% 3-point shooter over his college career, and he has a penchant for knocking them down at the biggest moments. I’m writing this on the evening of Jan. 20, and so I just saw Johnson hit a 3-pointer to take the lead against defending national champion Virginia with 2:50 to go in the second half.
Maybe none of the 30 NBA general managers want to take on a 6-foot-1 point guard who is averaging 13 points per game in his senior season of college, and that’s fine. I’ll admit NC State isn’t seen as a traditional college power where a lot of blue-chip prospects come out of, save for T.J. Warren and Dennis Smith Jr. in recent years. Besides, playing in the NBA isn’t a right, but a privilege that few get to enjoy. But when I see guys like Hasheem Thabeet (remember him?) and Marvin Williams (who’s okay, but was picked second overall, which is yucky) get picked in the NBA lottery for no reason other than the prestige of the university they attended (Thabeet starred at UConn, while Williams went to the baby-blue school down the road from here), it reminds me that not only do great players slip through the cracks all the time and go unnoticed, but that mediocre players can often take their place in the limelight (and is Johnson better than the “average” player in the NBA? I certainly think so).
As a result, big-name schools are given more leeway by NBA teams when they’re selecting talent. Picking average players like Harry Giles III is forgivable if they come from a program like Duke. Obviously, the reason why schools like Kentucky and Duke are looked upon favorably is because they’re able to pump out so many great players — and so that prestige is well deserved — but not every player that goes through their campuses is destined for greatness. Unfortunately, NBA teams haven’t learned that just yet.
It sounds like I’m badmouthing players like Williams and Giles, which to an extent I am. But I can’t criticize someone for taking advantage of the opportunities they were given and running with them. It’s not like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist asked to be picked 2nd overall. At the end of the day, all these players have been working towards chasing a dream of making it into the Association. All they want is a chance to prove themselves.
All I ask — all I can ask — is that Johnson be given that same chance.