One on One with Chris Dortch: Delvon Johnson
Throughout his basketball career, Arkansas forward Delvon Johnson had been a supporting character, a contributor of modest statistics, nearly invisible to all but his coaches and teammates.
From Chicago’s Bloom Township High School to a mid-level Division I school (Western Illinois), a brief detour at junior college and his junior season at Arkansas, Johnson had never averaged more than 10 points, a handful of rebounds and maybe a blocked shot. Last season, his first in Fayetteville, he contributed 2.6 points and 2.4 boards a game.
A lesser player, resigned to his fate, might have followed the script one more time, graduated and taken a job selling pharmaceuticals. But Johnson wanted more. Having grown weary of being a bit player, he wanted a starring role.
Immediately after last season ended, he went to work, lifting weights, conditioning, adding a jump hook and a face-up game. Before anyone on his team realized it, Johnson had transformed himself from a wiry 220 to a solid 250, and he could shoot a jump hook with either hand.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey must have had a feeling about Johnson. Last October, when Pelphrey could choose one player to represent the Razorbacks at the Southeastern Conference media day, he bypassed potential all-conference guys Marshawn Powell and Rotnei Clarke and brought along Johnson.
“Other players on our team had good summers,” Pelphrey said then by way of explanation. “But nobody worked harder than Delvon. Since the moment last season ended, he made a decision to embrace everything in our program. He took advantage of everything we put in front of him and attacked it.”
Johnson wasn’t exactly mobbed by the media, which he took in stride. “I understand why people don’t know who I am,” he said. “[But] they’re going to know who I am by the end of the year.”
As it turned out, Johnson was wrong about that. It took only a couple of games for him to announce to the league and the nation that the hard work he put in had paid off, even better than he or his coach could have imagined.
Johnson blocked 12 shots in Arkansas’ first three games, impressive but not surprising given the competition (Grambling, Florida Gulf Coast, Southeast Missouri). Then came his formal ascension to another level. In the Hogs’ fourth game against UAB, Johnson, as coaches often say, “careered out,” establishing personal bests in 10 statistics, including points (18) and rebounds (13).
Two games later, those two marks went by the wayside when Johnson scored 20, to go with 14 boards, against Troy. And after coming within two blocked shots (10 points, 12 rebounds, eight blocks) of a triple-double against Seton Hall, blocking seven shots against Texas A&M and scoring 17 points against Tennessee in the Hogs’ SEC opener, Johnson proved he could be just as effective against power conference competition.
“One of the great things about athletics is that, sometimes you think you’re going to get production out of a certain spot and [a player] doesn’t meet expectations, but somebody else works hard and surprises you,” Pelphrey said. “We thought Delvon was capable of defending, blocking shots and rebounding. But I don’t think any of us expected him to get 17 points against Tennessee in a very high level game.”
Assistant coach Rob Evans, the former head man at Ole Miss and Arizona State, works with the Razorbacks’ post players. He marvels at Johnson’s work ethic.
“Delvon’s a guy that, every single day, he’s the last one to leave the gym,” Evans said. “When practice is over, he works on his post moves and shoots tons of free throws because he knows he’s going to get fouled. He reminds me of a guy I had at Arizona State, Ike Diogu. He’s a perfectionist.
“We work a lot with our big guys on jump hooks, and Delvon has really developed that shot. But we also work on counter moves in case [opponents] try to take things away from you. We take them outside on the perimeter a little bit, make them shoot jump shots and pump fake and put the ball on the floor. Those are the things Delvon works on every single day.
“And if he misses two or three jump hooks in practice, he’s out there after practice working on his own. He’s trying to figure it out.”
Johnson had a modest goal when he began his workout regimen last spring. He just didn’t want to get pushed around by SEC-level post men. But once his newfound jump hook began falling, he knew his job description was about to change.
“I was always a defensive player and a rebounder,” Johnson said, “from high school to junior college to last year here at Arkansas. But now I’m getting the opportunity to score. That’s big for me.”
Johnson’s makeover was timely, given the early travails of Powell, who suffered a broken foot in the offseason and was slow to begin duplicating his performances from a freshman season in which he was a unanimous selection to the coaches’ All-SEC Freshman team. Powell was even suspended for a game but has since re-entered the starting lineup and along with Johnson given Arkansas a solid one-two post punch.
Johnson’s offensive improvement has been dramatic, but his efforts on the other end of the floor have been transformative. Pelphrey wanted his team to apply more defensive pressure in the half court, but Johnson’s shot-blocking skills have empowered the Razorbacks, who lead the SEC in steals (9.7 per game) and turnover margin (+3.0).
“All my guards tell me every game, ‘If I get beat, I know you’re back there to help me out,’ ” Johnson said. “And I’m always back there telling them what to do: Send your guy left, I’m back here. Don’t foul, just let him drive. I’m back here to help. If I don’t block the shot, altering it is just as good.”
Johnson leads the SEC and is No. 3 in the nation in blocked shots (3.8 bpg). He’s got a good chance to surpass Oliver Miller’s single-season school record of 112. So far this season, he’s racked up three games of seven or more blocks.
A former opponent of the Hogs inspired Johnson and unwittingly gave him a few tips.
“I’d always been able to block shots,” Johnson said. “But last year, watching Jarvis Varnado [of Mississippi State, the NCAA’s all-time leading shot blocker], I took a couple of things from him. His timing is great; he’s always the second one to leave the floor so he won’t get a foul. And if a guard drives, he would leave his man and go help. Those are the easiest blocks to get, because they don’t see you coming.”
Johnson isn’t about to rest on his accomplishments. He’d like to see how far his expanding game will take him and Arkansas, which he thinks is poised to make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“As much as I’ve done, I feel I can do more,” he said. “Way more. And on both ends. I feel like I should be a double-double guy every night. That’s what I’m shooting for.”