RALEIGH — One thing went through Markell Johnson’s mind as he watched on television from his home in Cleveland, Ohio, as his NC State basketball teammates upset then-No. 2 Duke on Jan. 6.
As good as the Wolfpack already were, he knew that the team could be even better once — or, more accurately, if — his indefinite suspension was lifted and he returned to action.
“Them beating Duke,” Johnson said, “made me think we can be a really good team on defense and on offense.”
Johnson’s return was anything but certain at the time. He was being held out of action while his lawyers dealt with a felonious assault accusation brought against him because of an incident that took place in Cleveland last October.
The charges were dismissed on Jan. 11, clearing the way for Johnson to be reinstated. He got back to Raleigh in time to sit on the bench for State’s win against Clemson later that day.
After one game to get his rhythm back in a loss at Virginia, the sophomore point guard has quickly regained his form. And just as he predicted, the Wolfpack has become a better team on both ends of the court because of it.
“He’s been great,” State coach Kevin Keatts said. “Anytime you go through some adversity, it kind of helps you grow up in a way, and he’s been a pleasure to be around. He’s worked hard. Obviously, he’s not in great shape. He’s one of the only guys who will put his hand up and say he’s tired. But he’s coming along. His conditioning is getting better.”
His performance has already reached a high level.
Against Wake Forest last Thursday, Johnson contributed 13 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot in 27 minutes. He was also involved in two of the game’s biggest plays, helping to force the Deacons into a pivotal 10-second violation, then hitting a tie-breaking jumper to lead State to a 72-63 victory.
Even though he was held scoreless in Saturday’s loss to then-No. 25 Miami, Johnson handed out a career-high 14 assists — his third double-figure effort of the season — to help his team shoot 54.4 percent from the floor.
He’s also, in the words of sophomore center Omer Yurtseven, “defensively killing whoever he’s playing. He’s locking guards up and going 100 percent on every play.”
Johnson missed seven games during his suspension, which was announced an hour before State’s Dec. 16 loss to UNC Greensboro.
Although his return was anything but guaranteed, the former four-star recruit said he never lost faith that his legal situation would eventually be resolved favorably. To that end, he never stopped working on his game, even though he wasn’t allowed to be around his teammates.
“I just played basketball,” Johnson said. “I’m a basketball player, so I’m going to play ball every day. … It’s just good being back with my team.”
The other members of the Wolfpack are just as happy to have him back, especially two in particular.
“The guy who has benefited more with Markell Johnson being back is probably (backcourt mate) Braxton Beverly, because we can free him up from having to handle the basketball. Also, I think he’s helped Omer,” Keatts said. “If you look at it before Markell left, he was our leading assist guy. He can find people.”
In fact, Johnson’s 6.8 assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6 would be leading the ACC if he had enough assists to qualify.
His ability to penetrate has opened things up for Yurtseven — this week’s ACC Player of the Week — as well as giving State’s perimeter shooters more space to find open looks at the basket.
“He’s a guard who can attack bigs off the pick and roll,” Yurtseven said. “When bigs have to stay on the ball, it creates an opportunity for me.”
At 13-7 (3-4 ACC), State is still a longshot to play its way into either an NCAA tournament or NIT bid. But with a resume that includes wins against Arizona and Duke, both of which were ranked No. 2 at the time, and another upset of current No. 18 Clemson, the opportunity is there for the taking if the Wolfpack can finish strong.
It’s a goal that became much more realistic when Johnson went from being a spectator watching on television to an active participant again.
“It was very hard watching them playing without me,” Johnson said. “But I got back and just got right in the rhythm. Now I’m ready to roll.”