The flagship university in his home state. The defending national champion. And a school whose head coach he has only met once.
From the outside, one of Keon Johnson’s three finalists doesn’t fit in with the others.
Credit assistant coach Jake Diebler for even putting Ohio State in the conversation to land Johnson, the No. 30 overall prospect and the top-ranked player from Tennessee in 2020. Without him on Chris Holtmann’s staff, Johnson’s finalists would almost certainly include Tennessee, Virginia and Vanderbilt, the school Diebler formerly coached at.
Instead, the Buckeyes all of a sudden find themselves in the mix, along with Tennessee, often regarded as the favorite, and Virginia. Johnson, a 6-foot-5 combo guard, will decide between his three finalists on Aug. 6.
Prior to Diebler’s arrival, Ohio State’s hadn’t even offered Johnson a scholarship. They had shown interest, but weren’t truly in consideration. But given the “bond” between Johnson and Diebler that began building more than two years ago, the simple act of hiring Diebler put the Buckeyes among the leaders in his recruitment.
“I talked to Ohio State a little bit before, whenever coach Diebler wasn't there,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors on Thursday. “But whenever he got on campus, he made me feel that I'm who they want.”
Loyalty, Johnson said, separates Diebler as a recruiter and coach.
“Some coaches say one thing but do the complete opposite or show the complete opposite,” Johnson said.
Through constantly “showing support” to Johnson and his family, Diebler earned his trust. Johnson said Diebler talks to him “like he's one of my best friends.”
Diebler had past success locking down commitments from high schoolers from Tennessee, most notably helping land five-star Darius Garland, out of Brentwood, Tennessee, in 2018. Johnson, who attends The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, became a top target of Diebler years ago at Vanderbilt, and he remains one even after the move to Ohio State.
“As a coach, he wants to win, no matter the game, situation, time,” Johnson said. “He's very intense, I would say. I've built a real strong relationship with him. We talk basically every day, and he communicates well with my parents.”
Johnson planned to take a visit to Ohio State last weekend, but ended up not making the 400-mile trek to Columbus. He said he plans to reschedule the visit.
He and his family had a chance to meet with Holtmann at The Webb School on May 1. It was the first time Johnson had ever met Ohio State’s head coach in person, and he said he “liked him.” During what Johnson described as just a typical “conversation,” Holtmann extended him a scholarship offer.
The Buckeyes currently have just one open scholarship for their 2020 class, which doesn’t have any commitments yet. They have targeted two broad positions: wings and big men. Johnson fits into the category of wings, though he said he enjoys playing with the ball in his hands.
“They're recruiting me as a combo guard, someone who can defend at every spot,” Johnson said.
At 6-foot-5, 190 pounds, he’s one of the most gifted athletes in his class. Johnson described his game as “aggressive,” both on defense and when attacking the rim. Thus, he said he’s looking for a “fast-paced” system to play in at the college level.
As a junior at The Webb School in the 2018-19 season, he averaged 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3 steals and 2.4 blocks per game. Johnson shot 58.4 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. He noted his jump shot is the most improved aspect of his game in the past year, with the enhancement coming due to his hope that “people can respect me from every aspect of the court.”
“My percentages are slowly increasing,” Johnson said. “That's what I really wanted. It's a slow and steady increase. Getting better every day.”
As a kid, Johnson’s first love was baseball, and he said he was better at that sport than basketball. But due to the small size of his hometown – Bell Buckle has a population of around 500 people – and the necessity to head out of town to play travel baseball, he quit the sport soon after beginning high school.
The summer after his freshman year, Johnson began to make a name for himself on the grassroots basketball scene. Growing up in such a lightly populated area, he didn’t have any local idols to look up to. No one whose path to follow.
So he’s blazing his own trail.
“I'm really putting on for my city,” Johnson said.
Every day at school, he said, younger kids come up to him, the de facto big man on campus. Many act as “on-campus” recruiters, with most hoping he ends up at Tennessee.
The interactions never get old to Johnson, who said he loves them.
“It's very important just because I'm opening doors for other kids that's looking up to me,” Johnson said. “And it really motivates me to be even better.”
In 81 days, Johnson will have to decide whether the younger classmates at The Webb School look up to a Volunteer, Cavalier or Buckeye.
He said he’s “just taking it slow” in order to enjoy the process before making his eventual choice between Tennessee, Virginia and Ohio State.
“It's basically just family, knowing my family can be there every step of the way,” Johnson said. “And then having trust wherever I go within the coaches and the support system around me to be able to grow.”
Eventually, sometime soon, Johnson expects to make a visit to Columbus.
And when he makes the trip, he’ll evaluate a few factors: “If I can see myself fitting in to the system there or fitting into the campus and seeing myself playing in an Ohio State uniform.”