Johnson worthy of top honor

The clock showed 54 seconds remaining when St. John Neumann forward Alize Johnson received a rousing standing ovation and walked off the court for the final time as a high school player.

The fans were showing their appreciation for one of Neumann’s all-time greatest players. They also were cheering an athlete who should win this year’s Class A State Player of the Year Award. There are many worthy candidates for the honor, but nobody has a more air-tight case than Johnson does.

“I think he’s made a tremendous case and I would be shocked if he wasn’t,” Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. “His numbers speak for themselves and the most impressive thing to me was, even with his numbers, he always brought everybody else up.”

Together, the whole package is pretty unbeatable.

1. The Numbers

Johnson’s statistics are eye-popping. The senior captain averaged 24 points, more than 16 rebounds and five assists per game. He could dominate the post while also playing the game like a point guard. Johnson was just about impossible to defend because he could hammer teams down low, beat them in transition or stand outside and drain 3-pointers.

A four-year starter, Johnson scored 741 points this season and is a member of both the 1,000-point and 1,000-rebound clubs. He scored 47 points in a January win over Muncy and elevated his performance in his team’s biggest games while also being a team leader in steals and blocks. As the competition grew stiffer in the postseason, Johnson remained dominant, recording a double-double in all nine playoff games while leading Neumann to a Heartland Conference and District 4 championship in addition to its first Final 4 appearance since 1972.

Despite teams basing their defensive strategy on slowing him, Johnson averaged 24 points, 15 rebounds and 5.6 assists during the playoffs. He grabbed 21 rebounds against Loyalsock in the HAC championship, recorded a triple-double against Mansfield in the district semifinals and made a run at a triple-double in a state playoff win over Greenwood.

Johnson scored in double digits in all 31 games and likely would have had 31 double-doubles if Neumann did not blow a lot of teams away during the regular season leading to early exits.

“I think I proved to people I can play at any level in any league that’s out there,” Johnson said. “I just have to get ready for college and get ready to start a new journey.”

2. Team Impact

Neumann set a program record with 30 wins and became the district’s first 30-win team of the 21st century while also becoming the district’s first state semifinalist since Hughesville in 2009. The Knights won division, conference and district championships along with nine playoff games and had the longest District 4 winning streak of the 21st century.

Take away Johnson and forget the undefeated season, forget the Final 4, forget the HAC championship and possibly forget the district title. Neumann was an outstanding team, obviously, but Johnson was the one who powered the engine and made everything go. If he was not scoring, Johnson was assisting and setting up teammates for high-percentage shots, making the Knights one of the state’s best teams.

Just as important, Johnson lifted his team. Above all the stats, Johnson’s most valuable contribution was making his team better. Johnson was like a coach on the court and constantly pushed his teammates to play better. When your best player never takes a play off than everyone else knows he cannot either. The results speak for themselves.

“Every time he steps on the court he gives it all he has,” Neumann forward Kamaal Burkholder said. “He’s a good scorer, good passer, good rebounder and good defender. By far (he’s the best).”

3. No Superstars

While Johnson was surrounded by some gifted players, Neumann does not have the overall star power that teams like state finalists Lincoln Park and Math, Civics and Sciences do. Lincoln Park has three Division I recruits in its starting lineup. MCS has three Division I recruits in its lineup too and could have five players receive Division I offers.

Johnson is the only Neumann player that has received Division I interest. Senior point guard Richard Allen can play at the next level and some of the younger plays may some day play college basketball but Johnson was not surrounded by blue-chip prospects like many of the state’s elite players were. If Lincoln Park lost star Maverick Rowan it had 6-foot-9 Elijah Winnie to fall back on and vice-versa. If MCS lost Penn State recruit Mike Watkins it had Samir Doughty to rely on. Take away stars on those teams and they are deep enough to still win a state championship.

Take Johnson away and Neumann would not have whiffed postseason glory.

4. College

From having voted for all-state teams over the last 15 years I have learned that many voters love seeing Division I interest and/or offers somewhere in the nominee’s bio. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair since votes should be based on their performance in that given season but, nevertheless, put another check mark on the list.

Johnson has received Division I interest throughout the season and has offers from schools like St. Peter’s, Long Island University and Iona. Standing 6-5 and being able to play any position in high school has made Johnson especially enticing. He will not be a big man in college but Johnson’s height, speed, ball-handling, passing and vision make him an ideal guard and/or swingman. Johnson has shown he can play great against the state’s best and Division I schools agree.

“I love him. He came up to Philly this summer for AAU practice and I had a chance to check him out,” MCS coach Danny Jackson said. “Not only is he a great basketball player but he is a great kid. As much as I wanted to win I wanted him to have a good game and I think he played pretty good (Tuesday). He was very impressive and I hope he has a successful career in college.”

5. The Whole Package

There is no weakness in Johnson’s case. People can argue over who is the most talented and/or who will perform the best in college, but Johnson’s season tops them all. He took a team without superstars to the brink of the state championship and helped it reach the Final 4 for the first time in 42 years. He put up monster numbers, he attracted Division I schools and he lifted his team to a level some might not have thought impossible.

“That’s always to me, the best sign of a great player. Can you bring other players that don’t have the skills or talent close to your level and make them part of the team and he did a tremendous job of that,” Petcavage said. “Getting the ball to people, his verbal leadership…He was tremendous.”

And in Class A basketball, Johnson simply was the best.