Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2021-22 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 9. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While speaking at the ACC Tip-Off event last week, Wes Moore took it upon himself to educate reporters on the background of one of his new players.
Diamond Johnson (above) transferred to NC State this summer after a terrific freshman year at Rutgers. (Photo courtesy NC State Athletics)
The N.C. State head coach was asked about Diamond Johnson, who transferred into his program this offseason after a stellar freshman campaign at Rutgers. But, especially in a pandemic-restricted season, a lot of the folks covering the ACC didn’t watch the third-place Big Ten squad up-close last year.
“I don’t know if y’all know this, but Allen Iverson has an all-star game in Philly,” Moore said, referencing the 2020 Roundball Classic. “She’s the only female ever invited to play in that.”
Indeed. And now the Neumann Goretti product is a member of the Wolfpack, a team with Final Four aspirations.
N.C. State has won the past two ACC Tournament crowns in Greensboro and has appeared in three straight Sweet 16’s, but Moore’s squad desires more.
And for good reason. The Wolfpack are ranked fifth in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, and they return every single starter from last season’s team that went 22-3, including ACC Preseason Player of the Year Elissa Cunane.
But one of the things that has hindered the Wolfpack in past years is their lack of depth, specifically at the guard positions. In N.C. State’s Sweet 16 loss to Indiana last spring, point guard Raina Perez and two-guard Kai Crutchfield combined for 77 minutes. Only Perez came off the floor for three brief minutes.
Moore and the Wolfpack are hoping that Johnson will not only improve their depth in the backcourt, but add a new dynamic scoring threat to their offense.
“Diamond is a special player now,” Moore said. “Unbelievable quickness, can shoot the three from really deep. And she has just fit in great with her personality. She’s fun to be around.”
So far, Johnson has particularly impressed Cunane with her passing skills in practice.
A 6-foot-5 senior center who was tabbed as a Second Team AP and USBWA All-American last season, Cunane will benefit from a player like Johnson – someone who can feed her in the post, and someone Cunane can find for an open outside shot if the defense collapses on her. N.C. State led the ACC in three-point shooting last season and often thrived when Cunane drew double and triple teams, allowing her to kick-out to shooters.
“Diamond has been tough,” Cunane said. “With ball screens, pushing the ball. She’s looking for the open man and she’s knocking down three’s. I think with her knocking down three’s, and then going up to set a pick on the ball, it’s going to be tough on the guard to help sag-in on the pick-and-roll, or go up and guard her.
“She’s been throwing dimes too. Dime Diamond – she’s been dropping them.”
A year ago, Johnson didn’t dish out many assists for the Scarlet Knights – just 2.5 per-game – but she helped Rutgers win in several other ways. Johnson finished the year ranked eighth in the Big Ten in scoring with more than 18 points per-game, and sixth in the Big Ten in three-point shooting with a 45.5% clip from behind the arc. Johnson also had the fifth-best offensive rating of any player in the Big Ten with a 126.8 mark, according to HerHoopStats.
Diamond Johnson (above, right) in action with USA Basketball in the FIBA U-19 World Cup this summer. (Photo courtesy FIBA)
With Johnson leading the way, Rutgers went 14-5 last season, finished the year ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25 Poll, and made the NCAA tournament. Johnson was a bit bottled up in the Scarlet Knights’ first round loss to BYU, totaling 14 points, four rebounds and two assists in 40 minutes of play.
For her efforts as a rookie, the 5-foot-5 Philadelphia native was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team and the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
Coming out of high school in 2020, Johnson was a highly-touted recruit, ranked as the sixth-best overall prospect in her class by ESPN. In addition to being the first woman to integrate a men's national All-American game – that Allen Iverson Roundball Classic that Moore spoke of – Johnson was twice named as Gatorade’s Pennsylvania Girls Basketball Player of the Year, was selected to the Jordan Brand Classic and was a McDonald’s All-American nominee. Across four seasons for Neumann Goretti, Johnson averaged 30.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 steals per-game.
N.C. State was one of the finalists for Johnson’s talents when she was coming out of high school, but she ultimately chose C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers program over the Wolfpack, Boston College, South Carolina and Virginia.
A year later – after already proving herself on the college level – Johnson was again aggressively sought after. The Athletic and ESPN ranked her among the top players available in the transfer portal.
This time though, Moore and the Wolfpack didn’t finish in second place for Johnson’s services. Eleven days after entering the portal, Johnson announced her commitment to N.C. State.
“The transfer portal was really good to people that are trying to kind of rebuild,” Moore said. “I think every night is going to be a total battle.”
Johnson was one of two players that the Wolfpack added in the transfer market. The other was Madison Hayes, a sophomore forward from Mississippi State. Both players are expected bolster an already supremely talented squad.
“They're huge. They're coming in wanting playing time from a veteran group of starters that are returning,” Cunane said. “They’re definitely scorers. They’re playing defense and really mending well to Coach Moore’s style, the offense and other teammates.”
The hurdle for Moore will be finding a spot for Johnson in the lineup. With Raina Perez and Kai Crutchfield as the starting guards, N.C. State was pretty good last season, but it’s unthinkable to keep a player of Johnson’s talents on the bench for long stretches of time.
The veteran coach from Texas, now in his ninth season leading the Wolfpack – will need to be creative with rotations. Coaches and folks covering the ACC are expecting Johnson to play often and well, as she was selected to the conference’s preseason Newcomers Watch List.
“It’s going to be interesting, trying to get all the pieces to fit. I’m hoping we can make that happen,” Moore said. “But Diamond makes it easy because of her personality. Just like Raina did a year ago – Raina was instantly accepted because of her work ethic and her personality. We’re confident Diamond can do the same.”
When asked if he thought Johnson and 5-foot-4 Perez could play together and share a backcourt at the same time, Moore simply said, “Definitely.”
He added: “It gives you two kids on the floor that can handle the ball, that can shoot it, that make great decisions. It would be a small lineup, but it’s definitely a possibility.”
Johnson spent this past summer playing with Team USA’s U-19 squad at the World Cup in Hungary. There, she struck up relationships with a few future ACC opponents, like Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron, Louisville’s Payton Verhulst and Wake Forest’s Jewel Spear.
“We bonded really well,” Spear said of the ACC foursome. “And we always talked about – after we won gold – like, ‘Man, we're going to see each other this year.’ We told each other we’re going to compete, and of course, each of us said we’re going to beat each other.”
Spear and Johnson were often paired together in the backcourt. They quickly created a handshake for themselves and nicknames. When Johnson needed the ball, she’d yell out, “Spear Me!” When Spear sought her attention, she’d shout “Dime!”
“Her game, she’s really fast,” Spear said of Johnson. “She wants to pressure you full-court. And she wants to shoot the three.”
Moore and N.C. State are counting on it. Johnson’s game improving will only make the Wolfpack better, and make their Final Four dreams closer to being a reality.