Senior guard Markell Johnson finished his career at NC State ranking 39th all-time in total points, third in assists and 10th in steals while averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 assists, missing out on a chance to leave the finishing touches on his mark at NC State. The 6-foot-1 floor general saw his and his entire team’s season abruptly ended in the middle of the ACC Tournament, and right before a potential NCAA Tournament appearance.
Johnson showed drastic improvement through his junior season since arriving at NC State as a four-star recruit in 2016. His scoring averages increased each year by about four points, but the guard took a stagnant turn this season, not being able to find his shooting stroke.
However, Johnson dealt with an injury he never quite seemed to heal from in the early stages of the season, hurting his averages. Johnson’s magnum opus came in the form of arguably the most memorable win of his career, a 22-point upset win over Duke, with Johnson scoring 28 points, a season high, on 5-of-6 shooting from downtown, along with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Like many athletes, Johnson was robbed of the rest of his season due to the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, and it cost him a chance to help carry the Pack far into the postseason. The team had just come off an encouraging win over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first round of the ACC Tournament, bolstering its chances to make an NCAA Tournament bid.
For Johnson, this was his last chance to prove NBA teams could take a chance on him in the upcoming draft, as Johnson has zero years of eligibility remaining. The guard went through the NBA draft process during the 2019 draft cycle, where players may test the waters, see where they are projected to be drafted, and then decide whether or not to head back to school.
“It boosted my confidence a lot,” Johnson said of the NBA Draft process after an exhibition game against Mount Olive. “From us going to the NIT and me trying out, trying to get to the NBA, getting feedback — it did nothing but boost my confidence to another level. One of the main feedbacks I got was to be consistent from start to finish. No matter if it is an exhibition or an ACC game, the outcome of my play has to be consistent no matter what.”
When Johnson arrived at NC State in 2016, the Wolfpack was undergoing a period of change. Johnson is the only player remaining from the disappointing 2016-17 squad led by current New York Knick Dennis Smith Jr. and is the only player on the team to have played under former head coach Mark Gottfried.
Even though he was not recruited by current head coach Kevin Keatts, Johnson saw his playing time drastically increase under Keatts, and he started in 24 of 26 games as a sophomore. The 2017-18 season would be the only time Johnson would see the NCAA Tournament in his four-year career, a 94-83 loss to Seton Hall. And while Johnson was never able to make a deep run into the postseason, he left an undeniable impact on what an NC State basketball player and NC State athlete in general should be.
Johnson’s inhuman ability to get any halfcourt heave to go in, his determination displayed through his hustle, his keen eye for weaving the ball around the court and his ability to control and spread the floor are all aspects any point guard would desire in their game. Next year, the point guard room will look completely different, with incoming recruits Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore set to take over the leadership void left behind by Johnson.
While Johnson began his career as a quiet freshman, he blossomed into a talkative and dominant guard, perhaps the most important growth in his game. His NBA career and even the draft process as a whole are up in the air due to unfortunate circumstances, but Johnson’s peak proved to the world that he is a professional player, regardless of where he ends up.