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Tri-Partisan: Markell Johnson can be the man for State this season

Raleigh, N.C. — A major question facing NC State prior to the season would be if the Wolfpack could find a go-to player. Who will it be?

It‘s hard to be a contender in a league like the Atlantic Coast Conference without a true closer, a guy late in games who you can give the ball to and make a play or score a basket.

Compounding the concern was the fact that NC State returned just three players from the previous season, and none really seemed to be certain to fill that role. Torin Dorn isn‘t your traditional wing in terms of scoring off the dribble and/or setting up other players, and Braxton Beverly is more suited as a complementary piece. Markell Johnson also returns from last season, but he hadn‘t really shown a willingness in the past to look for his shot. Ultimately, a closer not only needs the appropriate skill set, he also has to be able to turn on that “get-a-basket” mentality when necessary.

Allerik Freeman filled that role down the stretch last year, and it led to the Wolfpack‘s late-season surge into the NCAA Tournament. Incoming transfers CJ Bryce and Devon Daniels seemed to be ideal options, but would one of them be capable of doing it in the ACC?

After the Wolfpack‘s 80-65 weekend victory over Vanderbilt, eight games are now in the books. During the final minutes of that contest I believe we finally got a glimpse of who the Pack’s go-to player can, and should, be: The aforementioned Markell Johnson.

NC State led for much of the game but started poorly in the second half. A double-digit lead evaporated, and with 6:40 remaining the Wolfpack was now clinging to just a two-point advantage, 60-58.

That is when Johnson took over.

He had started slow, as he had just four points through the game’s first 33 minutes – but Johnson proceeded to score 15 of the Wolfpack‘s final 20 points, including 11 straight over the next three minutes, which pushed the two-point lead to a commanding 10-point advantage.

Johnson had it working: mid-range jumper, three-pointer from the top of the key, driving, contested left-handed layups in traffic. He even added in a nifty assist to Wyatt Walker for another basket.

Simply put, he took over the game, and it was something that NC State badly needed at that juncture. The showing also gives legitimate hope that this team can reach its potential as a contender in the ACC – something that isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound should Johnson continue his strong play and become the Pack’s unequivocal closer.

We saw glimpses of this potential from Johnson last year. Remember his 20-point, 11-assist effort in the overtime win at North Carolina where he dominated the final five minutes of regulation and overtime?

That is the type of player Johnson can be, and we saw it again on Saturday.

Kevin Keatts has stated multiple times that he wants Johnson to be more aggressive as a scorer. He led the ACC in assists as a sophomore and had a stretch of five-straight double-digit assist games. However, he also had games where he didn‘t score (actually two, against Virginia and Mami) and wasn‘t hunting his own offense. It‘s hard winning each night in this era of basketball if your primary ball-handler isn‘t a consistent scorer.

Part of the reason why Keatts has suggested Johnson be more of a scorer is because the 6-foot-1 guard has worked extremely hard and made major improvements to his offensive game.

When he arrived as a true freshman he really couldn‘t shoot much at all, but over his three seasons in Raleigh virtually all of his shooting percentages have increased across the board.

Johnson has improved his scoring, field goal percentage, 3 point percentage, and free throw percentage each season, and this year he‘s averaging a career high 12.8 points per game. His assists and minutes are down this season, as he‘s averaging just 4.3 assists per game, but that number will pick back up once his minutes rise against better competition.

Season/YearScoring AverageField Goal %3-Point %Free Throw % 2016-17/F 437.7%25.0%57.7%2017-18/S 8.946.0%40.9%60.9%2018-19/Jr12.860.0%50.0%77.8%

Markell Johnson should look to tally more points because he‘s extremely efficient as a scorer. He‘s shooting 60 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range, and nearly 80 percent from the free throw line. He is also one of the best passers in the country and is dangerous maneuvering off high ball-screens, the main set in NC State‘s offense. What makes great players so tough to defend? Not only can they score, but they can also create for their teammates. Johnson fits that bill.

This team has plenty of really, really good scoring options and has been a very good offensive team through the first eight games of the season. However, they‘ve needed a guy to step up and be the closer in tight games.

Ideally that guy will be Markell Johnson, and he is starting to realize it – something that should bring smiles to Kevin Keatts, his staff, and Wolfpack fans alike.

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