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A career perspective: NC State's Markell Johnson

The goal for every team, and every player for that matter, is to win the last game of the season.

Senior point guard Markell Johnson joined a short list of players in NC State basketball history this year able to say they won its last game in a Wolfpack uniform.

NC State defeated Pittsburgh 73-58 in the second round of the 2020 ACC Tournament in what would end up being Johnson’s final contest of his four-year college career.

Less than 24 hours later, the ACC and NCAA tournaments were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. NC State appeared to be trending toward the right side of the bubble three days from Selection Sunday, but every team’s bubble burst early this year because of coronavirus.

In many ways, the abrupt ending to Johnson’s NC State career was unfortunate. The Duke Blue Devils were waiting in the ACC quarterfinals, an opponent Johnson had some of his best performances against.

While we’ll never know what the Wolfpack would have done in the rest of the postseason, Johnson leaves behind a historic career at NC State.

A second-team All-ACC selection his senior year, Johnson joined Chris Corchiani as the only NC State players in the shot clock era to lead the conference in assists per game in two separate seasons. Both Corchiani and Johnson accomplished that feat the first time as sophomores and the second as seniors.

Johnson finished his career third all time in assists at NC State with 607. Only Corchiani and Sidney Lowe had more.

Johnson played in the only NCAA Tournament game of his college career as a sophomore, a 94-83 loss to Seton Hall in the 2018 first round. NC State was competitive each year Johnson started, but missed the tournament his final two years due to varying circumstances. The Pack were not invited Johnson’s junior year due to a poor non-conference strength of schedule and not enough marquee wins, and again his senior year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

NC State Wolfpack basketball guard Markell Johnson goes for a dunk.
Johnson finished his career among the best Wolfpack point guards ever, statistically. (USA Today Sports)

Memorable Performances

Typically, players are most remembered by fans for their performances in the postseason. Magical moments in March cement the legacies of legends at every storied program.

Johnson’s most memorable moment in March came during his junior year when he sunk two last-second free throws to clinch a 59-58 win against Clemson in the 2019 ACC Tournament. At the time, Wolfpack fans considered it a “win and you’re in” game for the NCAA Tournament.

But that doesn’t even crack the top three of Johnson’s signature performances at NC State.

Most players increase their shooting accuracy the closer they get to the basket. For Johnson, the inverse seemed to be true.

He became infamous his senior year for becoming a sniper on half-court heaves. The Pack went 3-0 in games where Johnson hit a shot from the opposite side of the floor.

The first victim was Wisconsin.

Less than three weeks later, Johnson sunk an incredible game-winning buzzer-beater in Greensboro Coliseum against UNC Greensboro.

And, finally, Johnson put the exclamation mark on a near-perfect first half in an eventual home win versus No. 6 Duke.

The most memorable moments of Johnson in an NC State jersey weren’t limited to his sorcery from mid-court. Johnson was notorious for playing his best in the biggest moments against top competition.

As a sophomore, Johnson recorded double-digit assists in five consecutive ACC games. Included in that stretch was a double-double of 20 points and 11 assists in Chapel Hill that led the Wolfpack to a 95-91 overtime win over No. 10 UNC. The win is NC State’s lone victory over the Tar Heels in head coach Kevin Keatts’ three seasons in Raleigh.

The signature performance of his junior season came in an early season home game versus No. 7 Auburn, an eventual Final Four participant. Johnson had 27 points, four assists and three steals against the Tigers in the 78-71 victory. During one second-half stretch in crunch time, Johnson took over the game by scoring 10 straight points.

Johnson’s performance in the 88-66 win over No. 6 Duke his senior year will likely be the one Wolfpack fans remember the longest. It was a career night when the Pack most needed it. With NC State’s tournament hopes on the line, Johnson scored a career-high 28 points, to go along with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals, and helped his team secure a marquee win.

Legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made it a point to find Johnson after the game to compliment the point guard.

“You played a great game. Not a good game, but a great game,” Krzyzewski told him.

The Enigma Of Inconsistency

“Which Markell Johnson will show up tonight?” became the theme of NC State’s 2019-20 men’s basketball season early on in conference play.

“Good Markell” and “Bad Markell” became the binary analysis points used by local sports radio hosts, columnists and Wolfpack message board members alike to describe the senior point guard’s performance on any given night.

In fairness, Johnson’s performance was typically a precursor to NC State’s result on the scoreboard. When “Good Markell” showed up, the Wolfpack could win any game. When “Bad Markell” showed up, the Wolfpack could lose any game.

As oversimplified as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde analogy is to describe Johnson’s play, it proved to be a recurring theme during the Cleveland native’s four seasons in Raleigh.

Johnson quickly established himself as one of the top point guards in the ACC after becoming a starter his sophomore season, but the lack of night-to-night consistency became a nagging Achilles' heel.

Many times, the disparity in Johnson’s game was beyond explanation. For instance, Johnson became respected for his perimeter shooting. He shot 41 percent on 66 three-point attempts in his sophomore season. He improved to 42 percent on 161 three-point attempts as a junior.

Johnson would again put up 161 attempts from beyond the arc his senior season. His efficiency dropped, however, to 27 percent.

Keatts, entering his fourth season at NC State this November and his first without Johnson, had a different way of describing the peaks and valleys during the point guard’s career.

“There’s not a bad Markell. There’s only a great and a good, and he was great tonight,” said Keatts following Johnson’s career night in the 88-66 win over No. 6 Duke.

Comparing Players In Wolfpack History

As new recruiting classes flow in and time moves on, PNC Arena is less likely to see four-year players of Johnson’s caliber.

Of the three 2019-20 All-ACC teams, only three of the league’s fifteen best players were seniors: John Mooney of Notre Dame, Trent Forrest of Florida State and Johnson.

This is the reality of college basketball's modern era. Players are more likely to turn pro early or transfer than play four years for one school. Senior stars such as Johnson are an endangered species.

To compare the career of Johnson to a player such as Dennis Smith Jr., the one-and-done point guard that started above Johnson in his first season in Raleigh, would be unfair. While Smith’s stock in the pro ranks has always been higher, Johnson’s four-year career at NC State shines much brighter than the legacy Smith left behind in his single season.

Truthfully, comparing Johnson to the careers of Lowe or Corchiani, the only two players to have more career assists in a Wolfpack jersey, would also be unfair. Lowe played in the pre-shot clock era and Corchiani played in the 45-second shot clock era.

When determining where Johnson sits historically among NC State point guards, it’s best to analyze players with comparable careers and circumstances. Here is a career comparison of notable three- and four-year point guards at NC State over the past 20 years:

NC State Points Guards Of The Past 20 Years
Player Years (Starting) Points Assists AST:TO Ratio

Markell Johnson (17-20)

4 (3)

1,163

607

2.1

Justin Gainey (97-00)

4 (4)

885

344

1.45

Archie Miller (98-02)

4 (2)

943

248

1.5

Clifford Crawford

4 (2)

722

309

1.37

Engin Atsür

4 (4)

1,173

364

1.73

Javier Gonzalez

4 (3)

764

336

1.27

Lorenzo Brown

3 (3)

1,167

589

1.94

Cat Barber

3 (2.5)

1,507

403

1.83

The numbers suggest Johnson was the most efficient passing point guard NC State has had in the past 20 seasons. While score-first guards such as Barber consistently put up flashier numbers in the points column, they don’t come close to Johnson’s career passing efficiency.

Based on stats, Johnson’s career is the most comparable to that of Lorenzo Brown. Despite playing only three years to Johnson’s four, Brown played 29 more career minutes.

It’s not just the similarity in minutes played that makes the two point guards statistical doppelgangers. Brown scored four more points in his career, while Johnson recorded 18 more assists. Brown had seven more steals, but Johnson had 15 fewer turnovers. The two players are nearly identical when it comes to their career stats.

Johnson likely had a slight edge on the offensive end. He was a better statistical shooter than Brown, had a more efficient assist-to-turnover ratio and was more effective out of the pick-and-roll.

Brown was a better defender and rebounder due to his size. Brown, currently playing professionally in Serbia, is listed at 6-foot-5 while Johnson is 6-1. It makes sense Brown averaged 4.2 rebounds per game at NC State compared to Johnson’s 3.0.

Brown was picked by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the late second round of the 2013 NBA Draft. Johnson’s current projections range from a late second-round selection to perhaps more likely going undrafted. While we don’t know what the future holds for Johnson in the pros, Brown has played in 107 NBA games over five seasons.

Johnson, like Brown, will be remembered as an elite point guard in the modern era of Wolfpack basketball that was a member on competitive NC State basketball teams that played relevant games in March.

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