Only 1% of high school basketball players across the country participate at the Division I level.
When trying to ascertain why some players make it to the next level and others do not, experts often point to the heredity and bloodlines of an athlete. While being the child of a former Division I college basketball player certainly is important genetically speaking, in the case of Aztec freshman Demarshay Johnson Jr, there is more to his success than the elite athleticism he inherited from his father Demarshay Johnson Sr.
Johnson’s mother, more than anyone else, is responsible for her son growing into a basketball player for one of the premier programs on the west coast. With his father in and out of his son’s life, Johnson was raised by his single mom in Richmond, CA.
“His mom pushed him a lot,” Bill Mellis, Johnson’s basketball coach at Salesian College Prep, told EVT. “She was really hard on him and made sure he got good grades in school.”
This no-nonsense attitude from his mother helped fuel Johnson’s work ethic and development. As a high school freshman, Johnson was a raw 6’7” basketball player. Coach Mellis and his staff made the difficult decision to put him on the JV team so that he could get playing time. Some players with Johnson’s bloodlines would have scoffed at the idea of playing on the JV team and looked to transfer elsewhere that would guarantee varsity status right away. But Johnson stuck at Salesian and trusted the coaching staff around him.
That trust paid off. By the time his sophomore year came, he made drastic improvements, grew slightly, and was elevated to the varsity team. He earned honorable mention All-TCAL distinction as Salesian went 31-1 and won the CIF North Coast Section Division III championship.
Johnson’s big breakout came towards the end of his junior year, according to coach Mellis. “He was a big factor for us, blocking shots, running the floor,” he said. “He was as important as any player on our team” as Salesian’s quest to defend its CIF North Coast Section Division III championship ended in the semifinals.
Despite his emergence and huge upside, Johnson continued to fly under the radar. He had zero offers at the end of his junior season. It was not until the summer of 2020, heading into his senior season, where he caught the eye of then San Diego State assistant coach Jay Morris.
Heading into his senior season, Johnson’s recruiting stock began to elevate. He was rated a 3-star recruit per Rivals and 247Sports and ranked the 27th center on Rivals in the Class of 2021. He received five scholarship offers, including San Diego State, Pepperdine, and UNLV. He chose San Diego State and signed his Letter of Intent on November 10, 2020.
At 6’9”, 210 lbs, Johnson has the body size of a future professional basketball player. “He is so long, athletic, and has a knack for blocking shots,” answered coach Mellis when asked what value he can bring to the Aztecs team. He should be able to step in and help defensively as soon as he gets on the court.
Aztec head coach Brian Dutcher echoed the sentiments about Johnson’s physical attributes and how that suits his game. “He doesn’t look like a freshman,” said coach Dutcher. “He’s got size and strength about him. He moves at a really good pace on the floor, (and is a) good runner.”
Johnson’s biggest adjustment will be getting used to the speed of the college game and comfortable with the Aztecs’ offensive and defensive schemes. “He’s still trying to figure out college basketball,” assistant coach Chris Acker told EVT. “So we’re really just watching his development. But at the end of the day, he’s an elite shot-blocker, he’s a great athlete, he’s going to be a tremendous rebounder, and he can guard. All of the other offensive tools will come eventually.”
While the Aztecs coaches have deflected any questions surrounding playing time, all signs point to Johnson redshirting in the upcoming 2021-2022 season. The Aztecs are a deep team with several returning rotation players, plus several transfers expected to play a significant role on the team. In one preseason practice that EVT attended, Johnson was not a full participant.
Coach Acker cited the veteran leadership on the current team that can serve as motivation and examples for the young players on the team. “You can look at Nathan Mensah and see he doesn’t take reps off,” said coach Acker. “So if you want to be out there, then you watch him, you try to emulate what he’s doing. And then hopefully that gives you an opportunity to play one day.”
Another player Johnson would be wise to emulate would be Keshad Johnson. Like Demarshay, Keshad is from the East Bay and landed a spot at SDSU because of his superior athleticism. Keshad is in the middle of his journey from a freshman full of potential to a depended upon contributor. The veteran Johnson likes what he sees from the Aztec freshman.
“He has great upside, and his size and athleticism are his biggest attributes,” Keshad Johnson told EVT in an exclusive interview. “As he learns the concept of SDSU basketball, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Whether he can develop an offensive repertoire to add to his defensive talents will determine the extent of Johnson’s impact on the program. If Johnson can make the same leap from his freshman to junior years in college that he made in high school, look out, the Aztecs will have another highly impactful big man.
“It would be really good if they redshirt him,” stated coach Mellis. “He will be a ridiculously good player as a third-year college player. If you would have seen him as a freshman and as a junior [in high school], it was like two different players.”
The work ethic and grit to reinvent his game at such a young age is a credit to an amazing mother, who helped unlock the potential he inherited from his father.