24/SEVENS: Johnson counting blessings in rookie G League season

By 24/SEVENS | February 1, 2018

by Varun Raghupathi

Trivia time: How many basketball players from Cal State Northridge have gone on to play in an NBA game?

If you said anything other than zero, you’d be incorrect. The Matadors have had two men get drafted by an NBA team – Loran Bracci in the 11th round in 1969 and Cliff Higgins in the 7th round in 1984 – but neither laced ‘em up in the Association.

“My goal is definitely to play in the NBA,” says Delaware 87ers guard Darin Johnson, a CSUN product who would make school history if he reached basketball’s highest level.

Johnson joined the Sevens after the team selected him 12th overall in the 2017 NBA G League Draft. His road to this point was a little wonky and featured a solid high school career, followed by stops at Washington and Cal State Northridge.

The Sacramento native’s time with the Huskies didn’t go as planned and, after two years in Washington, Johnson decided to move on to the Matadors.  

“It was a different experience, but, you know, I used that experience to mature,” Johnson said. “At Washington, I don’t think I was the most mature kid and when I got to CSUN it opened my eyes and I became more humble. I realized I really had to work hard at this game.”

A year on the bench due to transfer rules also helped Johnson grow. When it came time to hit the hardwood for his redshirt junior season, the 6-5 two-guard was ready. Johnson put up 13.8 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc. He had the option of returning to CSUN for his redshirt senior year, but elected to go pro instead.

“I had a solid year and I just felt like leaving CSUN, you know, with the mindset that I had I felt like it was a better opportunity for me to take my chances at the pro level,” Johnson said.

The 2017 NBA Draft came and went. Johnson, like countless others, didn’t hear his name called. However, that changed when first-year general manager Elton Brand scooped up Johnson with the Sevens’ first selection in this year’s G League Draft.

“I think my first impression of Darin when we scouted him in the draft was that he was a guy who could get downhill,” said Delaware head coach Eugene Burroughs, who helped make the selection. “He’s athletic and he has great size.”

Life for a G League draft pick is shrouded in uncertainty. Some guys get cut right away, others get traded, and then there are those simply can’t get off the pine come game time. Yet there are a select few, like Johnson, who get small opportunities to make good and take advantage of them. Still, it took Johnson some time to adjust to the speed of the game at the professional level.

“I knew it was competitive. I didn’t know it was this competitive at first, but now I do,” Johnson said. “Seeing guys quick, fast, athletic just like I am, so, you know, that was a wake-up call for me to work harder and get better and better.”

The former Husky-turned-Matador had to exercise patience at the beginning of the season. He didn’t see the court until the team’s third game of the year and only played 12 minutes in each of his first two appearances with the club. Still, the coaching staff saw a budding skillset that could help the team on both sides of the floor.

“He’s really improved with our staff on the details of defense, of how to play, where to be. He’s still a work-in-progress with that, so he’s growing from that perspective,” Burroughs said. “He’s one of the guys where, when the ball’s moving, he can attack the rim and get into the lane and score.”

As his opportunity expanded, Johnson’s stat line beefed up. On November 18, he scored nine points in 18 minutes at Fort Wayne. A week later, the CSUN product notched the first start of his professional career and finished at plus-7 across 21 minutes. Delaware picked up its first win of the season that night with a road victory over Raptors 905, the defending G League champions.

“It’s a blessing to be able to use this experience to get better and better,” Johnson said. “I’m just using this as a tool to up my game and improve.”

Life as a rotation piece sure beats the dread of not knowing if you’re going to play, or worse, not knowing if you’re going to be on the team in a few weeks. Still, Johnson is in the nascent stages of his journey. He’s got a long way to go to get to the NBA, but as his game develops, the climb won’t feel as daunting.

“Hopefully, it works out.”