It’s 2011 and Alize Johnson is a 5’9” guard. He’s at St. John Neumann High in Williamsport, Pa., and he’s trying to improve his game. “I remember working on my handle and trying to become a really great passer, because I knew how small I was,” he says.
He loves basketball, and realizes his height might limit him. So what do you? If you’re anything like Alize Johnson, you get lucky. Johnson grew nearly a foot by the time he was a senior in high school. “My mom says one time she came into the house, she saw me lying on the couch and she thought it was a burglar because she didn’t know who I was,” he says. “I kind of don’t believe it.”
Now 6’9”, Johnson is a power forward at Missouri State averaging 11.6 rebounds per game, fifth-best in the nation. Averaging a double-double, the senior is gaining buzz as a potential first round pick, and leading a Missouri State team that has a solid shot at winning its conference tournament. Not bad for a self-proclaimed underdog.
Once he grew into his frame in high school, Johnson excelled. He was Mr. Basketball in Pennsylvania, but he didn’t qualify academically out of college. So he found his way to Frank Phillips junior college in Borger, Texas, a tiny town sandwiched between the New Mexico and Oklahoma borders. “There was nothing going on,” Johnson says with a laugh. “Closest thing to do fun was to go to the mall or a club, and that was an hour away. You don’t want to do those things after working out, going to school all day.”
The isolation benefited his game. He averaged 12.7 points as a freshman, and earned All-America honors as a sophomore after scoring 16.7 points and 12.0 rebounds. His coach, Chris Hackett, was eager to place him in a D-I school. Hackett crossed paths with Missouri State head coach Paul Lusk at Missouri Southern. The connection made things easier.
“We really liked how he rebounded,” Lusk said of Johnson’s workout. “And that workout, a lot of times, guys try doing a lot of things that they really can’t do. He just played the game the right way.”
In his first year at Missouri State, Johnson immediately excelled. He averaged 14.8 points and his 10.6 rebounds per game ranked 10th in the nation. He was 15th in double-doubles (17) and was named first-team All-Conference. His rebounding ability most impressed Lusk.
“It’s just something you can’t teach,” he says. “[Johnson] pursues the ball and [has a] strong determination to get it. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not a guy who’s getting both elbows above the rim, nor is he a guy who has an unbelievably long wingspan. Guys that maybe get two elbows above the rim, [Johnson] will get it over them every day of the week. It’s a special ability he has.”
Rebounding may be a natural skill, according to Lusk, but Johnson has worked hard at it. As he grew taller in high school, he had to change his game from guard to forward. He had the ball skills—he needed to learn to rebound. He would practice angles that the ball would come off the rim from, learning to attack the ball before it came down.
Last season’s performance prompted Johnson to declare for the draft, but he didn’t hire an agent and “had no intentions of staying into it.” Still, word had gotten out about Johnson, and he wanted to take advantage. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. He worked out with the Celtics before withdrawing his name.
That experience led to him being named to the Adidas Nations event, where he earned MVP honors ahead of big names like Bruce Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and Yante Maten.
That confidence has spilled over to this season, where Johnson has established himself as the MVC’s best player. To start the season, he put up 23 points and 20 rebounds against North Dakota State in just 26 minutes, 24 and 11 in a win over conference-leading Loyola-Chicago in December and 24 and 20 against Valparaiso earlier this month.
“I’m just trying to make these things happen,” he says. “My teammates are doing a great job helping me do these things, they all listen to what I got to say, and I listen to what they got to say.”
Missouri State is 15-8, and while three straight losses have moved it to fifth in the MVC, the team is only a few games behind Loyola-Chicago. Lusk would like his perimeter to play to improve and for someone to develop as a secondary option. But with the best player in the conference, they’re certainly not out of it.
Meanwhile, Johnson is beginning to get first-round buzz. He has size, physicality, rebounding skills and can shoot (43.9% from the field). Johnson has heard the talk.
“When I hear it now, it’s cool, [but] I know nobody knows what pick I’m going to be," he says. "I need to keep working and everything else will take care of itself.”