NC State has done a pretty remarkable job of reinventing themselves since the Markell Johnson suspension began.
Remember, the Pack dropped a home game to UNCG on their first game without Johnson. They went on to beat Robert Morris and Jacksonville (two of their weakest opponents to date) but fell to Clemson and Notre Dame to open ACC play. What happened after that is pretty remarkable.
Kevin Keatts was able to get his group to adjust on the fly. Whatever he’s been saying to Lavar Batts Jr, it got through. Batts stepped up huge in NC State’s wins over Duke and Clemson and has become a reliable PG and the team’s best on-ball defender. He’s also gotten through to Al Freeman, who over the past two games has 10 assists and suddenly is playing team basketball. Throw in the fact that Torin Dorn is playing as aggressive as he ever has and Yurtseven suddenly looks like the sure-fire pro he was advertised as.
Without Johnson, Keatts has gotten his guys to step up. To take pride in defense and to play as a team. Before Johnson was suspended, he was the main facilitator and he was doing a great job at it (His assist rate was top-10 in the nation). But without him, they’ve had to take a team approach to creating for each other. Batts, Beverly, Al Freeman and Torin Dorn have all increased their assist rate since Johnson has been out.
It’s not just passing either. NC State went through a stretch after Markell was out, where they couldn’t create any turnovers. Over the past two games, they’ve figured it out. They turned Duke over 16 times and Clemson 17 times in those wins.
Was this team using Markell Johnson as a crutch? In some areas, it appears so. Without Johnson, this team didn’t just accept the fact that they’d be lacking in the areas he was excellent. Instead, they put their heads down and figured out how to collectively fill those gaps. After beating the #2 and #19 team in consecutive outings, it might be safe to say they accomplished that.
So what happens now that Markell is back?
Well, suddenly NC State seems a lot deeper and seems to have a lot more experience. Before Johnson’s suspension, Lavar Batts Jr wasn’t getting many minutes. Even though he was quick, he still made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball. That’s not the case anymore. It seems to have clicked for Batts over the past two games. With his recent surge in play and Markell’s return, NC State could have a backcourt that no guard in the ACC would want to have to face. The havoc that these two could create in Keatts’ press could boost what are already some pretty impressive turnover numbers for the Pack.
Offensively, Johnson was doing a ton. He was leading the team in assists, but he was also their best 3 point shooter (39%). He was the guy who could get into the lane, draw the defense and find the open shooters. He made the offense go for the first 10 games of the season.
Whenever you add a player into the rotation, dynamics change. This team has really played well together recently, and any change small change has the opportunity to disrupt, adding a player like Johnson will almost always be a net positive.
Look at this way, if Johnson was a ball-dominating scorer, then yes, we believe chemistry could initially be an issue, but that’s not Markell. In fact, he was leading the team in assists while also being the team’s most efficient scorer, shooting 45% from the field, 39% from 3 and shooting less-frequently than anyone on the team (.24 shots per minute). Anytime you add a guy with stats like that, you’ll likely be ok.
We still are not sure if Johnson will play in the team’s matchup with #3 Virginia on Sunday, but Keatts said that he would see how he looks in practice and decide from there. We’ll keep you updated.