MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — DerMarr Johnson made his first appearance on WVU’s bench on Tuesday as the Mountaineers topped No. 14 TCU for its first Big 12 win.
The game fell just two days after his announcement as the program’s newest assistant coach, filling a hole on the bench left by the departure of associate head coach Larry Harrison. Johnson was present even before the game started, conferring with fellow coaches, bantering with players and providing pointers from his seat during the game.
But what kind of an impact can a man have on a team in such a short period?
“He’s already helped us,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “When our guys are over [there] stretching and he’s fooling around and walks out to the WV in the middle of our floor and drains about six straight that didn’t even hit the rim, and they’re going like, ‘Wow.'”
Johnson, 42, isn’t far removed from his lengthy and tumultuous playing career. In 2000, the Atlanta Hawks selected Johnson as the No. 6 overall pick in the NBA Draft after a two-time All-American career as a Cincinnati Bearcat coached by Huggins. He started to find his place in the NBA until the 2002 preseason when he broke his neck in a car crash, forcing him to miss the upcoming campaign and threatening his career.
The Washington, DC product returned to the court nonetheless with the Long Beach Jam of the American Basketball Association before returning to the NBA as a New York Knick and a Denver Nugget. Johnson then went on to play in Italy, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, China, Mexico, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.
“When you stop about what the guy went through to come back and play in the NBA,” Huggins said. “Kenyon [Martin] and I actually went in and saw him, it was…almost the morning of the accident, and to walk in there and see that halo [neck brace] on his head and to come out of that the way he came out of that and still be as productive as what he was as a player is absolutely remarkable.”
Johnson has spent the last year and a half at his alma mater as the Bearcats’ director of player development. That fact, along with his experience as a player, makes him an enticing coach for the Mountaineers.
“He’s an ex-professional basketball player, I mean, we can learn a lot from him,” said WVU guard Kedrian Johnson. “I feel like he’ll be good for this program and us guards in particular so I look forward to working with him.”
Joe Toussaint, another WVU guard, echoed that sentiment and added that his experience as a player under Huggins made him even more enticing to work with.
Huggins has fond memories of recruiting Johnson in the 1999 signing class. The 6-foot-9 shooting guard joined Cincinnati when it was at the peak of its Conference USA domination under Huggins with a stacked lineup and little room for a freshman to shine.
Huggins found a spot for the dynamic guard in the lineup and Johnson capitalized on the opportunity to become one of the best players in college basketball and a top NBA prospect.
Johnson brings much more than knowledge and experience to the program. He also adds connections to the Mountaineer network, and Huggins hopes that could pay recruiting dividends in the future.
“I’m excited about the fact that he can go to DC and everyone knows him. I’m not embarrassed to say that we haven’t done a very good job [recruiting] in DC,” Huggins said. “I think Gale [Catlett] did a much better job in DC than we did. We really didn’t do a good job at all, and when you think about the players that have come through here from DC, we need to get in there and do a better job and he’s as good a guy as there is to go in and help us do that.”