Alize Johnson doesn’t think much about his Twitter critics. The Missouri State junior and Pennsylvania native is no stranger to being doubted.
To him, they’re just words. But it speaks to a larger overall theme that seems to follow Johnson at every level: People love to doubt him.
“People are going to say what they want and have their opinion,” Johnson said. “I don’t let it phase me. I’m a strong believer in God and his plan. It’s definitely been a long journey to get to this position. Prayer has gotten me a long way and I’m sure most people will never understand. My family has always been big on religion and it’s gotten us here. To be in this position is shocking to some people but it’s not to us because we’ve pictured it.”
On Monday, the Boston Celtics watched Johnson work out, bringing the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year one step closer to his ultimate dream of playing in the NBA. A dream that seemed extremely unlikely just a few years ago.
Johnson’s path to Missouri State via St. John Neumann High in Williamsport, Penn. and Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas is one that is full of doubt and growth.
Doubt that the then-6-foot-4 forward truly had Division I talent, despite earning Mr. Basketball honors in Pennsylvania behind 24.1 points, 15 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game as a senior. Followed by the doubt that his slight frame would hold up battling D-I front lines or that he’d ever develop a consistent enough jumper to play on the wing, despite averaging a double-double.
“My mom wanted me to attend a private school to get a good education and have that structure,” Johnson said. “I felt like I could play with those guys at the higher level but nobody thought so because I played in a lower class. For me it’s been about the opportunity to get to the bigger stage. I’ve just needed to get that opportunity.”
While the questions surrounding his game have meant little, the growth has been pivotal.
Johnson started his prep career as a 5-9 point guard. By the end of it, he had grown seven inches, which helped him expand his game. After two years in Texas, Johnson added another four-plus inches. Through the growth spurts, he’s been able to maintain those guard skills, but has managed to intertwine his newfound length and increased athleticism to become that hybrid 4-man that has changed the landscape of the NBA.
His numbers this year won’t overwhelm you, but the versatility that they display should.
He led the Missouri Valley in rebounding (10.6 RPG) and double-doubles (17), also finishing top 15 nationally in each category. However, Johnson knocked down 40 triples at a 39 percent clip, making him one of two players in the nation to average a double-double while reaching that benchmark from deep.
Johnson had five 20-point, 15-rebound games this season, second only to Big Ten Player of the Year and potential first-round pick Caleb Swanigan. Johnson and Swanigan were the only players in America with multiple 20-20 games as well.
His PER (24.7) matches that of potential No. 1 pick Lonzo Ball and is higher than projected lottery picks Jonathan Isaac, Ivan Rabb, Josh Jackson, and Jayson Tatum.
ESPN’s Chad Ford ranked Johnson as the No. 94 player in the 2017 draft class, saying that he’s a unique prospect and that he’s an excellent rebounder who can shoot with range. Ford’s knocks included that Johnson is a tweener and that he doesn’t have elite length or strength. Ford also offered this analysis:
“Johnson averaged a double-double at Missouri State as a junior and proved that he can be a legit 3-point shooter as well. He lacks the length and strength to be a full-time 4 in the league and doesn't really have the ability to create his own shot that wings usually require. But he's an interesting prospect for some NBA teams and could sneak into the second round if he stays in the draft.”
If you’re looking for a player comp, look no further than this year’s playoffs at Golden State forward Draymond Green.
Green was also labeled a tweener back in 2012, as many thought he was too small to play a true 4, but not athletic enough to play the 3. However, scouts loved his ability to shoot, his hunger to rebound, and his motor. Those qualities all apply to Johnson as well.
“I like the energy [Green] brings and how hard he works on the floor. He does the little things and that’s something I stress about,” Johnson said. “Rebounding is one of those things as well. I feel like it’s so valuable when a shot goes up to get that possession. Rebounds are so valuable so in my mind I want to get it every single time and I have fun doing it.”
But apart from showing off his strengths, Johnson is also getting valuable feedback. He’s hearing about how he needs to become a more consistent shooter, develop his left hand, and add strength to his 200-pound frame.
Johnson was unaware of Ford’s ranking or analysis of his game, calling it an honor, but reiterating that he has every intention of returning to Missouri State unless he is viewed as a surefire lottery pick, which he didn’t see as a realistic possibility this year.
“I’ve heard from a few teams and to get the feedback and get criticism about my game helps,” Johnson said. “This process is allowing me the opportunity to workout and learn more about my game.”