SE: Johnson Ready for More Minutes, Bigger Impact in Final Season

At times last season, D.J. Johnson would shoot free throws while the rest of his teammates were practicing. Other times, he could only watch. 

The 6-foot-9 forward, who once went 601 days without playing in a game because of a foot injury, was working through the hesitation that comes from missing so much time, the fear of the reinjuring it and the fight to get his body back up to speed. 

“We were just trying to survive the season,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said of keeping Johnson, who averaged 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, healthy last season.

The 16-plus-month span without games was one thing. The frustration of rehab and some unfortunate setbacks while helplessly watching a rough season — K-State’s first losing record since 2002-03 — was quite another. 

Fortunately, Johnson possesses an innately positive mindset, which he credited Ice Family Basketball Center Sports Medicine Coordinator Luke Sauber for helping keep alive. 

“He’s a positive person, always stays positive,” Johnson said of Sauber. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been down and out at all. I’d like to think of myself as being strong mentally, and with Luke by side, it was another reassurance that I’d be fine and things could always be worse.”

Physically, Johnson couldn’t be better now. It’s evident in his build, in the way he moves and by the way Weber describes him. 

“He has done a really good job with his body and he’s made that commitment,” Weber said. “He is just a physical stud. He is in shape, he is strong and lean.”

Johnson, who averaged 20.3 minutes per game last season, said his stamina is “as high as it’s been” in his life. On top of being healthy, the senior said he has improved his eating and sleeping routines, allowing him to play better for longer periods of time.

“It’s going to be a big help, especially getting conditioned. I want to be conditioned to play a lot of minutes,” said Johnson, who tallied the highest single-season field goal percentage (60.8) in school history, with at least five attempts per game, last year. “Being able to run up and down all day as much as you want without having to worry about anything else, it’s going to be really helpful throughout the season, especially with the luck that we have with injuries. If you have a guy go down, you might be playing 30 to 35 minutes. That’s just going to be a big help for any kind of surprises we have throughout the season.”

With freshman forward James Love III already lost for the season with a broken foot, K-State hopes to avoid any more injury surprises this season. Having Johnson healthy and prepared for big minutes should be crucial either way, considering he led K-State in points-per-minute (0.46) last season. 

“The best thing is he’s going up and down, there’s no hesitation and he is making it through all of the practices,” said Weber, whose team opens the regular season against Western Illinois in Bramlage Coliseum on Friday at 8 p.m. “Being in practice, he’s playing a lot more confident, making some plays, advancing his game. It all adds up when he is feeling good about himself. That helps you be a leader. He’s excited about it. You can just tell by his play and his energy in practice.”

Johnson, the first player to commit to Weber at K-State, enters his fifth and final season of a career he said has “flown by.” For Weber, it seems much longer. 

“My wife and I were driving the other day and we were, like, ‘D.J.’s been here forever. It’s unbelievable.’ It was from the start for us,” Weber said. “He has been through some positive things, like winning the Big 12 Championship and going to two NCAA Tournaments. Then he goes back to his hometown, St. Louis, and he breaks his foot against Kentucky and then he has all the surgeries, boots and doubts, but he has stayed very focused and worked very hard.”

After seeing his team miss the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, Johnson hopes his hard work can help lead K-State back to the postseason. 

“It’s a lot of motivation to get back. We struggled last year with those little things and it’s motivation to get back and correct those errors we made,” Johnson said. “I want to leave the fans happy and leave them with something they can remember, whether it’s us making the NCAA Tournament or winning some kind of championship this year.”