KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The coming storm wasn’t going to be pleasant for anyone involved, but it had to happen.
By the time Kansas State assistant coaches Chris Lowery and Chester Frazier pulled freshman forward D.J. Johnson aside after practice about a month ago, all parties were at their wit’s end.
“We let him have it,” Lowery said. “I was going at him pretty good and then (Frazier) jumped in and started going at him ... then the two of us were on the attack. We feel responsible for these dudes, so sometimes we have to push some buttons.”
Frazier was even less delicate.
“I let him have it. I told him that if he wasn’t playing harder than everybody else and wasn’t doing the dirty work, he wasn’t going to be effective,” Frazier said. “I told him he needed to get it together.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound St. Louis native, let the lessons sink in and then went to work.
After watching his minutes dwindle to just one and then none — back-to-back games against Baylor and West Virginia — he has gradually worked his way back into the Wildcats’ rotation thanks to a renewed sense of dedication that began in practice.
Johnson averaged 8.2 minutes per game in the Big 12 Tournament, including a perfect 4-for-4 shooting performance against Texas. He could be the X-factor in the post for K-State in Friday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against La Salle at the Sprint Center.
“When (Lowery and Frazier) pulled me aside, it was because they saw a change in my game,” Johnson said. “They didn’t see the hustle that had been there, they didn’t see the effort they needed ... and I listened to what they were saying and I started in practices by turning things up. I know what they want me to do.”
Johnson hesitated to blame his late-season lull on fatigue from his first season of big-time college basketball, but there’s no denying it’s been a factor.
“I’m used to going from basketball to track and track to football and that’s always been my mode,” Johnson said. “This is a lot of basketball and I’m not used to going for this long, but I’m adjusting.”
Helping Johnson through that adjustment hasn’t just fallen on the shoulders of his coaches. Sophomore forward Thomas Gipson went through a similar situation last year.
“That’s one thing (Johnson) is always going to have an advantage with, because I’m here and I’ve got his back,” Gipson said. “I’m always telling him through the ups and downs that he needs to be ready to play. Be excited, because what we’re doing is fun.
“Coach (Bruce) Weber is always saying he needs junkyard dogs ... guys that are going to go in there and rebound and defend the post and do dirty work. When (Johnson) does that for us coming off the bench, it gives energy to the whole team.”
La Salle isn’t completely foreign to Johnson, either. They recruited him for awhile after his junior year of high school.
“I’ve been watching quite a bit of film on them, watched the game (Wednesday) night and I can see they’ve got some good guards and a couple of posts,” Johnson said. “My teammates have told me (the NCAA Tournament) can get pretty crazy, but I feel like we’ve got at least a small advantage playing so close to home and that we’ve played (at the Sprint Center) so many times. I like this environment ... I’m ready to help my team out however I can.”