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PLAYER PREVIEW: Markell Johnson is ‘grown up’ and ready to lead a talented Wolfpack backcourt

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No one ever questioned the talent level of Markell Johnson.

The Cleveland native was a highly recruited 4-star guard out of high school, but with Dennis Smith Jr.’s commitment to NC State, Johnson was forced into a backup role in his first season with the Wolfpack.

Behind Smith, Johnson still averaged over 20 minutes per game. He showcased great hustle and elite-level court vision, and was a breath of fresh air on a team that was often sluggish and at times selfish.

A lot changed last year, and nearly all of it was in favor or Markell. Gottfried was fired, Dennis Smith Jr went pro, Terry Henderson wasn’t awarded his 6th year, and Kevin Keatts was brought in to completely change the program.

This left Johnson in a position where, even as a sophomore, he was the only guard with experience at NC State. This made him a focal point for Kevin Keatts. If Keatts was going to succeed, he’d need Markell Johnson to be one of the best PGs in the ACC. The good news was that his system was almost a perfect fit for Johnson’s skill-set.

After an early legal scare, Markell came back and quickly became a high-impact player for Keatts.

Johnson averaged 9.3 points and 7.3 assists per game. Those numbers put him in some high company amongst Wolfpack point guards. His 7.3 assists actually led the entire ACC and he finished 3rd nationally in assists per game.

So the question everyone is asking is, what will he do for an encore?

We caught up with Markell at media day, but he didn’t want to talk too much about himself. Instead, he wanted to talk about his team and their goals.

“Our expectations are to win every game.” Johnson said.

To win this season NC State is going to have to not only rely on the talented junior, but also the group of guards behind him.

With the loss of Abu, Freeman, and Yurtseven, NC State is going to be forced to rely heavily on those guards

“We’ve got a lot of guards. We’re going to get out and run as much as we can. Get up and down, play defense” Johnson said. “We just have to find out who can play with who. A lot of different lineups because there are a lot of guards on the court this year.”

And if you’re wondering what Markell thinks of having so many guys backing him up this season?

“I love it. I’m a guard. I like playing fast. I’m going to have other guards running with me now. It’ll be fun.”

But it will also be competitive. Something Johnson isn’t shying away from.

“(More guards) means more competition in practice. But we need that. With a long season ahead of us it’s definitely good for us to have the guards we have.”

As for Keatts, just like last year, Johnson is going to be his key to success. However, this year he feels he’s more equipped to take on that role, both mentally and pysically.

“When you see Markell you’ll notice some extra bulk on him.” Keatts said. “He’s grown up a lot. At the beginning of last season, there was a lot he needed to work on. He’s become a better student, he’s popular around campus now and he’s done a great job of talking more with his teammates on the court.”

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PLAYER PREVIEW: Transfer Devon Daniels says his “offensive game has elevated a lot since Utah.”

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Over the course of our Basketball Player Previews, we’ve wrapped a player intro story around the interviews we did during media day. However, since we’ve already done an in-depth piece on Devon Daniels, and since these quotes are pretty good all by themselves, we’re just going to drop them right here for you.

On transitioning to Keatts system…
“That was perfect for me. At Utah I wasn’t really there to score. I was there to play hard, dive on the floor, get rebounds, play hard defense…and then I got to score. When he asks that of me, it’s perfect. I really like to win and compete.”

On his battles last year during practice with Al Freeman…
“Me and Al Freeman, we were perfect to go against each other because we are so competitive. I think it helped them a lot and it helped us grow. It was good.”

On where he fits with this team…
“Anything he asks me to do, I’m willing to do it. I trust him and I know he wants the best out of all of us. If he wants to put me anywhere on the court I’m ready, I’m willing.”

On the type of player he is…
“Shoot, I’m just a guard that likes to win. I’ll play defense, I’ll score. I think my offensive game has elevated a lot since I was at Utah.”

On what type of shape he’s in…
“Physically I’ve always been in pretty good shape. I’ve added about 5 pounds, my body fat is real, real low, at 1.9 or something like that. I’m really ready.”

On what he did when the team was on road trips last season…
“Made sure to stay in the gym. Just because they were gone it doesn’t mean we get a break. We just made an effort to get in the gym together.”

On what his sit-out transfer year was to him…
“It was more a learning opportunity. I got to see what made them go and at times what made them struggle. I took it as, like, film watching.”

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PLAYER PREVIEW: Eric Lockett is the guy nobody is talking about, but that may not be the case for long

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Grad-transfer Eric Lockett hasn’t been talked about much this offseason,

He decided to transfer back at the beginning of April two days after former head coach Anthony Evans was let go. He started 31 of 32 games last season, averaging 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Lockett began his career at George Mason, but suffered a season-ending injury in the 5th game. He then sat out a year transferring and spent the past two seasons at FIU.

Now at NC State, he steps into a program that has six quality guards (Markell, Beverly, Harris, Daniels, Lockett and Bryce) all looking to fill 3 spots. So what can Lockett bring to the table that will set him apart?

“Leadership first and foremost. Being able to show the guys how to work hard on a consistent basis. On the court, being aggressive and doing what I do well.”

If you look a little deeper, you can start to see a pattern with Kevin Keatts. Here we are again, this year the roster may be more talented, but there still isn’t a lot of veteran leadership. Like last year, Keatts has looked outside the program to bring in proven leaders. A year ago it was Al Freeman and Sam Hunt. This year it’s Wyatt Walker and Eric Lockett.

Lockett is also another player that his staff had targeted. This time it was a connection to Coach Siddle that started the process…

“Coach Siddle recruited me and throughout the whole process me and Coach Keatts talked a lot and built a relationship. I knew what he was looking for and what I wanted out of my next program and this is what I wanted.”

“(Coach Siddle) recruited me out of high school. That was a while ago but I kind of remembered him when he reached back out.”

The more we watch the decision Keatts makes and how he goes about building his roster, the more it’s apparent that this guy is organized, calculated and laser-focused on building his roster exactly the way he wants it.

Lockett is another 6’5 tweener. He’s another guy that is extremely physical and extremely aggressive. He’s athletic, he’s fast, and he has a great motor. He’s a Keatts-guy. He’s another Torin Dorn (albeit a little lighter) if you need a comparison.

This is why there’s no doubt that Lockett made the right choice coming to NC State. This is a sytem that fits his playing style, Keatts has shown he really liked versatile 6’5 guys who can guard multiple positions, and he’s proven he puts his grad transfers in a position to succeed. Lockett saw all of this too.

“(Seeing how the grad transfers were used and performed last year) definitely played a role in my decision. I felt I could come in and kind of do what they did. I’m a different player and will affect the program in a different way, but the opportunity that’s there, I like it.”

As far as transition goes, Lockett says it’s been easy and having a bunch of new guys on the team makes it easier to acclimate.

“It’s been fun. I’m enjoying playing with a new team. It’s not really difficult, it’s kind of easy because we have a bunch of new guys learning a new system, trying to do what Coach Keatts wants on the court.  It’s been pretty easy and I like the process.”

One source told us that Lockett isn’t just acclimating, he’s been a handful for the returning guards to deal with on the court. His physicality and ability to finish at the rim has surprised some who didn’t know much about him coming in.

So, when you’re trying to predict NC State’s rotation, make sure you don’t leave out Lockett. In fact, if you paid attention last year, you saw that it was guys like him who ended up playing big roles down the stretch for the Wolfpack.

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FLASHBACK to the most memorable Dunk Contest in ‘Primetime with the Pack’ history

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The year was 2009.  Sidney Lowe was in his 4th year with the Wolfpack and was coming off a 10th place, 16-14 (6-10) season. He was relying on a backcourt of Farnold Degand, Javi Gonzalez, Julius Mays and a freshman Scott Wood, to lead this Wolfpack ball club. In the frontcourt, they had some talent. Tracy Smith, Dennis Horner, and a young Richard Howell were asked to shoulder the load. They were supplemented by athletic wing Johnny Thomas and the huge Aussie Jordan Vandenberg.

Obviously, as expected, this team didn’t end up all that great. They finished with 20 wins but a 5-11 ACC record doomed them to 10th place.

That will be remembered for two things.

This 3/4 court heave by Chandler Parsons that won the game for a ranked Florida team…

And the ‘Primetime with the Pack’ dunk contest.

When your dunk contest participants are Farnold Degand, Johnny Thomas, walk-on Kaycee Obi-Gwacham and Jordan Vandenberg you aren’t going to be expecting much. But that night, Reynolds Coliseum was electric. It had an alley-oop from the 2nd deck, a decent ‘off the side of the backboard’ slam, and a 7’1 guy going between his legs for a dunk.

This might not be the best dunk contest in ‘Primetime with the Pack’ history, but considering it’s participants and the reaction from the crowd, I’d say it’s got to be the most memorable.

Do you agree?

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PLAYER PREVIEW: Ian Steere looks to bring physicality to the Wolfpack front court

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Ian Steere was probably the most hyped freshman in this year’s class thanks to the monstrous dunks that went viral amongst NC State fans.

However, just because you have a savage highlight reel, it doesn’t mean your skills are going to translate to ACC basketball right away. Ian Steere is finding that out in his early practices with the Pack.

“The pace of the game is much faster, especially the guards. And the bigs, you have to get out and switch, especially in the ACC, they can shoot and dribble. So, I need to move my feet and increase my lateral quickness. It’s been helping a lot.”

With grad senior Wyatt Walker and transfer DJ Funderburk on the roster and coming in with varying levels of experience, Steere isn’t going to be relied upon to shoulder the frontcourt load, he will, however, certainly have a role on this team.

Keatts explained in his preseason press conference that replacing Omer Yurtseven wouldn’t be easy but that he had a 3-headed monster that was up for the challenge Those 3 guys are all very different bigs that bring different skills to the table and are working well together so far this offseason.

“We’re gelling great. We get along on the court and each bringing a different piece to this team. Whatever Keatts needs, one of us can bring it on the court.”

So what does Steere think he’ll bring that is unique to the others?

“I’m trying to bring some physicality. I’m trying to get in there and dirty up the game a little bit. Get on the floor for loose balls, rebounds, whatever I can to help and my offensive will come around, I’m not worried about that.”

There is no question that Steere will succeed in bringing that physicality to the team. He’s built like a brick wall and plays very aggressively in the paint. This type of guy will always have a role on a basketball team, and as he gets more experience he’ll begin to add more pieces to his game. Steere talked about the areas he needs to improve…

“Adding a lot more post moves. Getting faster, being able to guard every position if I have to switch. Definitely moving my feet more and post moves (are what I’m working on the most.)”

The transition for Steere is like that of any freshman. It’s usually a little tough at the beginning, but by midseason, you start to see things click. In a Keatts-system, however, there’s an added wrinkle. Not only do you need to adjust to the speed of the college game, you need to completely change your workout habits and transform your body into a machine.

“(laughs) I”m in the best shape of my life, but I’m not in Keatts-shape yet, so I’m working on it. I’m getting there.”

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