No one has ever doubted Karron Johnson’s basketball talent.
At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Johnson, of Division II Shaw University, has drawn comparisons to Tracy McGrady and Marquis Daniels.
Johnson’s father was murdered when Karron was 5, and a series of academic and off-the-court issues prevented the Richmond, Va., native from ever making it into the Division 1 basketball ranks.
“Karron’s talent has never been an issue,” said James Black, Johnson’s North Carolina-based mentor. “He does have NBA talent. But his path is going to be a little longer.”
According to a 2009 story in the Tulsa World, Johnson was 5 when his father pulled up in a car outside their Richmond home, gave the boy a kiss and said, “I love you.”
He told his son he had to take care of something and would be right back so they could shop for sneakers.
He never returned.
According to the story, the gunfire could be heard a block away.
Johnson was never the same after that day.
“He went to school in first grade and he heard some kids talking about it and pointing at him — that’s the one whose daddy got killed,” Karen Johnson told the Tulsa World.
“It seemed like, after that, he just never really put forth any effort at school and didn’t want to go to school. He got frustrated.”
Johnson, who declined an interview for this story, has had trouble trusting men ever since.
“I have never had a problem with women,” he told the Tulsa World. “But I would be confrontational with men because I never really had a father figure in my life.”
Those issues have spilled over into his interactions with referees and coaches as a young man.
“To be honest,” he said. “I was out of control.”
Basketball gave him an outlet from his father’s murder, yet he bounced around to a series of North Carolina prep schools, including the Patterson School, Mount Zion, where McGrady played, and finally Laurinburg Institute.
After developing a strong relationship with Oklahoma State assistant Butch Pierre, Johnson committed to Oklahoma State, but never made it to campus.
“He really wanted to go to Oklahoma State but he had a lot of work from high school to make up for it,” Black said. “He put the work in but he didn’t qualify.”
Johnson made a stop at Moberly (Mo.) Area Community College, where he was the NJCAA Region 16 Player of the Year in 2009-10 after averaging 22 points and 7.9 rebounds.
He then went to Midland (Texas) College, where he was suspended after just nine games last November for what were called “internal matters.”
During an interview before the suspension last year with GoPokes.com, Johnson gave some insight into his long, winding road and his own mindset.
“To understand all of the things that have gone on in my life and where I’ve come from and the things I’ve been through, to understand why I’ve been to all these schools … it’s been tough for me. I just turned 21 and it’s been a tough 21 years for me,” he said. “I’m still in the process of trying to change these people’s opinions about me, but it’s just one step at a time.
“I want to change their opinion 100 percent but at the same time it doesn’t really bother me because I know what I’ve been through and I know what I’ve accomplished. Maybe some people say I haven’t accomplished anything but being the first person in my family to attend college is a big accomplishment. That’s an accomplishment in itself.
“I just take it one day at a time and want to continue moving forward and not so much look back into the past. As you get older you change and mature,” Johnson added.
After parting ways with Midland last year, Johnson is now at the small school in Raleigh, N.C.
Shaw coach Cleo Hill Jr., who coached McGrady and Daniels at Mount Zion, said he hasn’t had any issues so far with Johnson.
“I haven’t had any problems off the court like I was told I was going to have,” Hill Jr. said. “He’s a joy to be around.”
As for Johnson’s departure from Midland, Hill Jr., said, “I just think it wasn’t the right fit.”
Black says Johnson still maintains a strong relationship with the Oklahoma State staff, and that head coach Travis Ford still calls to check in on him.
“Most coaches would not even still call and see how a player who did not clear [academically] to come to their school is doing,” Black said. “It just goes to show that some coaches really care about these players.”
In terms of basketball, Hill Jr. said Johnson is a unique talent who reminds him of some of his former pupils.
“I’ve coached a lot of guys at that level, in particular wing guys like Marquis Daniels, Tracy McGrady, Flip Murray is kind of a wing guy.
“He’s a wing but he has a few things that a couple of those guys didn’t possess at that time when I had them. In terms of strength and athletic ability, I’m not going to say he’s above McGrady but he’s right there with tracy strength-wise.
“He has a high basketball IQ. He’s an inside/outside guy. He is a better than average defender in terms of position defense and blocking shots.
“He’s an NBA-level guy.”
Black said Johnson’s dream is to play in the NBA, in part so that he can take care of his mother and 6-6 younger brother, Travis, going forward.
Asked if he believed Johnson would get selected in the 2012 NBA Draft, assuming there is one, Hill Jr., said, “Oh, without question, I imagine he’ll go high, too.”
Adam Zagoria of Zags Blog covers the future stars of the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. His column appears every Saturday.