At Echols Hall in Norfolk, Virginia, Diamond Johnson remained cheerful despite a rigorous practice session that included extensive running on the court and up and down the steps of the 4,500-seat arena. Coach Larry Vickers felt that the team’s focus needed improvement, prompting the intense workout.
“I believe I have discovered the perfect spot for myself,” she stated before getting onto an exercise bike to complete another 20 minutes of exercise.
Many others are also filled with excitement, not just her. Vickers, who claims he dances every time a recruit chooses to join the Spartans, stated that “the song was longer” when Johnson made his decision.
The Spartans will be Johnson’s third team in four years, and bring her back to the area where her love of basketball blossomed, making her one of the top recruits in the 2020 class.
She began her college career at Rutgers and was selected as a member of the All-Big Ten second team during her freshman year, where she averaged 17.6 points. She later transferred to North Carolina State and was recognized as the ACC Sixth Player of the Year in her sophomore season. In her junior year, she was the top scorer for the Wolfpack with an average of 12.3 points per game and was also named to the All-ACC second team. As a point guard, she excels in both setting up her teammates with wraparound passes and scoring herself. She was also considered a strong contender for player of the year awards.
It is uncommon for a highly decorated player with professional ambitions to transfer from a Power Five school to an HBCU or any lower level institution. However, as Johnson stated when announcing her decision – and as Vickers confirmed with scouts – playing for Norfolk State is not likely to harm her chances of achieving her dream of playing professionally.
The Spartans had their most successful season since moving up to Division I in 1997, finishing with a record of 26-7. They were crowned champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season and tournament. In the NCAA Tournament, they faced off against No. 1 seed and reigning national champions South Carolina, ultimately losing 72-40. Coach Staley of the Gamecocks commented that the team, which ranked first in the nation in scoring defense (50.7 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (31.5), deserved a higher seed than No. 16.
It is not uncommon for a team from the MEAC, but Johnson was not discouraged. He mentioned, “These schools align with my playing style. I have noticed improvement in the players and they have skilled coaches. Virginia is also my home, I have been living here since fifth or sixth grade. This is where my love for playing began.”
In his eighth year as a coach, Vickers was familiar with Johnson from her time in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and formed a closer relationship with her when she began training at the school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He prioritized making sure she understood that there would be some changes, rather than solely filling a void in the lineup, when she showed interest in the Spartans.
“I expressed some constructive criticism about her playing style, which I don’t think she was anticipating,” he stated. “She probably thought I would just tell her to shoot the ball every time, but I’m not that kind of person. I believe she saw this opportunity as a chance to improve and help us advance past the first round, which I know is a goal of hers.”
The Spartans have recruited multiple players from well-known programs. Paris Mullins, a graduate student forward, transferred from McNeese State after previously playing at Auburn. Da’Naijah Williams, a junior guard, also joined the team from St. John’s. Seton Hall alum Danielle Robinson is now a graduate student guard/forward for the Spartans. Skye Robinson, who redshirted her freshman year, previously attended VCU.
When they meet with Vickers, they all hear the same thing.
“I always start by saying, ‘Listen, we’re not taking a private flight. If the distance is less than 400 miles, we’re taking a bus,” he chuckled. Johnson’s reaction? “I actually don’t enjoy flying,” she admitted.
The team is excited to welcome her. Two of their highest scoring players from last season were graduate students, making it crucial to bring on someone with Johnson’s qualifications in order to continue their success from the previous season.
Kierra Wheeler, the top returning scorer and low post presence, figures to benefit plenty from Johnson’s ability to drive and thread passes through the middle for easy baskets. She averaged 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds and said she’s lost nearly 40 pounds to get better.
“I am thrilled to have Diamond joining us. This is a first for us, and I believe it will showcase our capabilities to the MEAC and expand our reach,” Wheeler expressed.
What is the purpose of running during practice? Ultimately, it can enhance defensive abilities more than anything else.
Wheeler acknowledged that his team is fatigued, but he also recognized that this is likely the case for every other team in the country. He emphasized the need for his team to stand out and overcome their exhaustion.
Williams has developed a strong interest in the emphasis on defense, and the outcomes, particularly in the later stages of games.
“Continue to apply pressure to their throats,” she stated. “That’s the advantage of conditioning. If they become exhausted, they will ultimately face consequences.”
If things go according to plan, they may receive a diamond in their championship rings.
The latest news and updates on women’s college basketball from the Associated Press can be found at the following links: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball.