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Back close to home, Norfolk State's Diamond Johnson feels like herself again

02/01/2024, 1:00pm EST
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)

The name Diamond Johnson was first heard in Virginia.  

While she was born in Philadelphia, she grew up and came of age in Hampton and her basketball career took shape when she began playing in organized leagues at 11 years old. She began her high school career at Phoebus High School (Va.) and blossomed there before making an unexpected return to the City of Brotherly Love. 

Yet, Virginia is home for her and has always felt that way. It’s where the introductory paragraphs to her basketball story were written and it’s ultimately where the next few chapters will be forged.  

Johnson is culminating her collegiate career at Norfolk State, a half-hour ride from Hampton and just west of Virginia Beach. She had several reasons for playing at the historically Black college and university (HBCU) but most notably, the allure of having family only a short drive down I-64 appealed to her more than joining another Power 5 program.

Norfolk State junior guard Diamond Johnson transferred from North Carolina State this offseason to be closer to home. (Photo: Norfolk State Athletics)

“A lot of people feel Philadelphia is my home, but home is also Virginia,” Johnson said. “I grew up playing basketball here and went to middle school and high school here. I played for Boo Williams, so this is where I really started playing basketball. I have family down here and friends, so I need to be home, especially with everything I went through.”

Johnson now has her mom, Dana Brooks, close by along with a multitude of family members including several nieces and nephews, along with so many long-time friends she has reconnected with since making her move to Norfolk State. For a former five-star prospect who began her career at Rutgers then played two seasons at North Carolina State, the move to an HBCU initially caught some off guard but Johnson felt that family was important and building on what Norfolk State has accomplished recently brought on too great of an opportunity.

“I was definitely focused on coming home, first, because if I’m not in the right headspace then I can’t give my all to anything or any program,” Johnson said. “Norfolk State has been doing really well and they won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Tournament last year. I wanted to build off that. A lot of people consider them underdogs and that’s the type of mentality I have. I wanted to join a team that had that and try to make things happen.”

The 5-5 junior guard is averaging 20.4 ppg and 6.1 rpg in her 10 games since being granted immediate eligibility following a court ruling in mid-December which allowed all two-time transfers the right to play right away. She has hit 30 three-pointers while shooting 41% from the floor since being inserted into the starting lineup, and Norfolk State (15-5, 4-1 MEAC) has won eight of the games she has played in thus far.

Her arrival is a godsend for a Spartans program in the midst of a renaissance under head coach Larry Vickers, who led Norfolk State to its first MEAC Tournament title since 2002 a season ago. The Spartans fell to No. 1 seed South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. However, they finished 26-7 overall and are hoping to add to last season’s success with the addition of one of the most coveted transfers in the country.

Vickers didn’t necessarily recruit Johnson out of high school but rather established a relationship between player and coach.

 “I had a few good conversations with her, not so much in the way of recruiting but about who she was during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vickers noted. 

Three years later, he heard news Johnson was looking to make a move and they reconnected. He didn’t minimize the magnitude of Johnson’s decision for the trajectory of her career and his program.

“Think about all the decisions she has made recruiting-wise,” Vickers said. “She goes to Rutgers when she could go to the South Carolinas, UConns and Baylors of the world at that point. She has always gone to the beat of her own drum. She chose NC State the second time, even though she could’ve gone even higher. We want to win against high majors, and she saw the vision and thought, ‘I could be that piece.’ She’s a visionary and we’ve never had a recruit that has been ranked across the ESPN hoops rankings as high as she was.”

Under Vickers, Norfolk State was one of the elite defensive teams in 2022-23, finishing No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (50.7) and field goal percentage (31.5%), but it needed scoring with only one double-digit scorer returning in 6-1 forward Kierra Wheeler. Enter Johnson, who has been a prolific scorer since her high school career, and Vickers knew he had exactly what his program had been missing. 

“We needed scoring and that’s what she does,” Vickers said.

Johnson starred at Phoebus scoring 621 points with nine 30-point games and three 40-point performances as a freshman. She scored another 600 points as a sophomore before returning to Philadelphia. She transferred to Neumann-Goretti in February of her sophomore season to be closer to her father, James who passed away 10 months later following complications from a stroke and other health issues. 

The move had more to do about being with family than it did about basketball, but adding the electric prospect brought instant results as the Saints rolled to the 2018 PIAA Class 3A title with Johnson going for 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, and three steals in the state final.

Diamond Johnson was twice the Pa. Gatorade State Player of the Year at Neumann-Goretti. (Photo: Norfolk State Athletics)

She averaged 25.8 ppg during her junior season at Neumann-Goretti, which included a school record 54-point outburst against Imhotep Charter in the District 12-3A title game, and concluded that season with Philadelphia Catholic League MVP, Pa. All-State Class 3A Player of the Year and finally Pa. Gatorade Player of the Year. She was even better as a senior, amassing averages of 31 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.6 steals, but her shining moment of that final high school season was going for 53 points against Cardinal O’Hara on the two-year anniversary of her father’s death and setting a single game record for a Philadelphia Catholic League girls player.

She won all three awards again just as she did her junior year and became the first Philadelphia Catholic League player to win consecutive Pa. Gatorade POY awards since Cardinal O’Hara’s Kristen Clement from 1995-96. She culminated her high school career with 2,812 points and was ranked No. 6 in her class behind the likes of Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso and Caitlin Clark.

She committed to C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers and was named Second Team All-Big Ten as a freshman after avg. 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals. She scored in double figures in 17 games, with seven 20-point outings, but chose to transfer in the offseason and picked North Carolina State.

She didn’t miss a beat with the Wolfpack, being named ACC Sixth Woman of the Year as a sophomore then All-ACC Second Team as a junior. Johnson was integral in North Carolina State’s run to the 2022 Elite Eight and averaged 11.4 ppg and 4.0 rpg over two seasons there. She became a full-time starter her junior season but suffered torn ligaments in her right ankle which forced her to miss the NCAA Tournament.

Johnson has always been her biggest critic but after the disappointment of last season, she knew another change was needed. Oregon, Texas and Georgetown, among others reached out, but this decision would ultimately define her.

“There's a difference in how I’m feeling and mentally I feel more like myself,” Johnson said. “I feel freer, and I don’t have to think about much. Coach Vickers and my teammates allow me to make mistakes and correct them. I feel freer and not held back to where I’m 100% myself. The overall environment fits me.”

Johnson was able to work out with the team while she waited for her waiver to work its way through the NCAA, and she has meshed well with the current crop of Spartans in Wheeler (17.6 ppg, 11.0 rpg), Anjanae Richardson (7.4 ppg) and Niya Fields (7.0 ppg, 4.2 apg). She also played against teammates Da'naijah Williams and Crystal White on the AAU circuit and has done more than simply bring familiarity to this team. Vickers noted her work ethic has trickled down to the entire roster and her habits have become so contagious that players are buying in like never before.

“When you see these top-10 kids and, while I’ve been lucky over my time recruiting here, sometimes a lot of us think it’s only talent,” Vickers said. “Every day for 90 minutes, she’s in there then in the weight room on the weekends working on her body. That’s been great for a program like mine where we have kids who are talented but just don’t know the mental piece that’s missing or what hard work looks like. They now see, ‘Oh, this is why Diamond was ranked No. 6 in the country. This is why she has the success she does.’ The work speaks for itself and that’s rubbed off on this team.”

Vickers has seen firsthand what one individual player can do for a program as he was an assistant coach on the 2011-12 Norfolk State men’s team led by future NBA big man Kyle O’Quinn that beat No. 2 Missouri in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Vickers feels Johnson can have that type of impact. 

In her first game against Auburn, while still shaking off rust, she scored 15 points and surpassed 1,000 for her collegiate career. 

“She was the best player in the game,” Vickers said. “If we’re fortunate enough to make the tournament, we could have the best player in the game.”

Norfolk State is hoping for a return to March Madness and the hope is Johnson is the missing piece to not only get the Spartans there but also bring home the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. She is back in Virginia where she belongs, and she feels most at home. Johnson’s reputation as a player emerged in Virginia and she’s hoping it will be remembered there.

“I want to keep shining light on HBCUs, especially those smaller schools we’re playing against,” Johnson said. “I want to shine more light knowing that we can potentially be included with the Power 5 schools. I want to win a MEAC title again and try to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. I want to take what they’ve done to another level and set a high bar for ourselves.”

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