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Norfolk State’s Diamond Johnson shows Spartans fans why she was worth the wait

After not being immediately eligible to play with her new team, transfer is now averaging nearly 20 points per game and relishing the HBCU experience

Norfolk State University guard Diamond Johnson’s debut for the Spartans this season was uncertain. 

As a second-time transfer – the former five-star high school recruit began her career at Rutgers University in 2020 before transferring to North Carolina State University her sophomore year – Johnson wasn’t immediately eligible to play and spent most of fall practice and the early season awaiting the NCAA’s decision on her waiver. 

Though she was allowed to practice with the team, the wait was grueling for Johnson. Combined with the seven games she missed at the end of her junior year because of a lingering ankle injury, there was a 10-month stretch between Johnson’s last game at NC State and her first game at Norfolk State.

Now, after playing in only 11 games this season, Johnson already has made a name for herself in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. She is averaging 19.8 points per game, which would rank her No. 1 in scoring in the MEAC had she played in most of Norfolk State’s games so far this season. On Jan. 24, she was named MEAC offensive player of the week after scoring a career-high 29 points in Norfolk State’s 99-43 win over the University of Mary Washington.

Norfolk State, the reigning MEAC champion, is currently No. 1 in the conference rankings. 

“Since before my injury, I have never experienced me sitting out for that long since I started playing basketball,” Johnson told Andscape. “So it was kind of tough for me at first to just come to the realization that, dang, I can’t play. I don’t want to feel that way. So it [means] a lot to play [this season].”

When a federal judge ruled in December 2023 in favor of allowing second-time transfers immediate eligibility to play, Johnson immediately reached out to Norfolk State women’s basketball coach Larry Vickers.

“I hit up my coach. I’m like, ‘Is this real?’ so he made a couple of calls to make sure it was, like, legit,” she said.

Johnson’s long-awaited first appearance for Norfolk State occurred against Auburn University on Dec. 16; she finished with 15 points and six rebounds.

“I definitely was tired because there’s nothing like game speed. I’ve been practicing this whole time, but the game was different,” Johnson said. “It was a little adjustment playing the game, but I was just too excited.”

Unsatisfied with her performance, she went back into the gym to prepare herself for conference play, one of the most crucial times of the basketball season. 

“I definitely did extra workouts [and] extra running so I won’t be tired,” she said. “It feels good to play with my team. I’m adjusting to them, they’re adjusting to me. I’m adjusting to [Vickers] actually coaching me for the first couple of games, but I think we are in a good groove. We got a good flow, and it is becoming more natural. We have a lot of chemistry now that I’m [11] games in.”

Vickers said Johnson’s passion for the game is evident as she works to get back into playing shape. 

“She loves basketball. That’s the difference between her and a lot of other people,” he said. “She’s a gym rat. She’s in the gym 90 minutes [or] two hours every day doing something Monday through Friday.”

During games when Johnson, junior forward Kierra “MeMe” Wheeler, Norfolk State’s leading returning scorer, and junior guard Niya Fields are connecting, it shows flashes of the potential Vickers imagined when Johnson announced during the summer she would be transferring to the historically Black university.

“She’s here to try and help us win a game in the NCAA,” Vickers said.  “Now it’s like, ‘Hey, we got [a top-ranked recruit].’ It’s not 12 McDonald’s All-Americans versus zero. So just that balance of power can shift everything into going into a game.”

Johnson kept her transfer plans quiet so she could focus on recovering from injuries and to research the schools she was considering. When she announced her commitment to Norfolk State in May 2023, she heard varying reactions about her decision to play for a historically Black college or university.

“Some people was like, ‘Oh, this will stop her from getting drafted,’ or, you know, my chances are slim. It really doesn’t matter to me because I know what type of player I am, and I know the type of work that I put in to be on a draft board,” Johnson said. “I still do what I do, so it’s only gonna get better from here.”

Combined with the seven games she missed at the end of her junior year with a lingering ankle injury, there was a 10-month stretch between Diamond Johnson’s (center) last game at North Carolina State and her first game at Norfolk State.

Naje Murray/NSU Athletics

Vickers describes his system as a pro-style offense with multiple reads and a lot of off-ball action that he feels will prepare Johnson for the WNBA. He feels the landscape of the league has changed and doesn’t believe her playing at Norfolk State should diminish her draft chances. 

“Now as we kind of go into the [27th] year of the WNBA, you can now see the young lady from Florida Gulf Coast [Kierstan Bell] was drafted top 10. Two years ago, Jackson State [Ameshya Williams-Holiday]. You’re just going to see [mid-major players] a lot more,” Vickers said. “Diamond was already on the [draft] boards before she got here, so now it’s just a matter of her doing what she knows she can do and destroy defenses.”

The transition off the court has been a welcome change for Johnson. She attended high school at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia, less than an hour away from Norfolk State’s campus, which has offered a different experience than her previous institutions. 

“The people are nice and they [are] welcoming. It feels natural,” Johnson said. “It’s different. Usually you don’t see a lot of Black people walking on campus – it’s just the athletes – but here the professors are Black, the people that work here are Black. I just feel more comfortable in those spaces.”

During the recruiting process Vickers was honest with Johnson about some of the luxuries she wouldn’t have at Norfolk State, such as private flights, but it didn’t matter to her: Johnson wanted a program that would push her to improve. She frequently comes into Vickers’ office to discuss film and ways to make the team better. 

“She didn’t make this decision [to come here] lightly,” Vickers said. “She really did her research. For me and all my players, I think I’ve got a pretty good relationship with them. My door’s always open, they always know that, and she actually utilizes that.”

Vickers and Johnson have built a rapport based on trust and patience. They frequently discuss her shot selections and areas on the court where she can have the most impact.

“He trusts that I’m gonna shoot the shots that I’m supposed to shoot and obviously get everybody else involved,” Johnson said. “He’s been holding me accountable. If I get a turnover, I’m doing five pushups every time and stuff like that. So he just holds me to a higher standard, and that’s what I need.”

Over time, Johnson has built that same trust with her teammates. 

Wheeler was on vacation when Johnson committed to the Spartans, but the two have bonded since Johnson joined the team. Wheeler said she didn’t know what to expect when Johnson arrived on campus, but Johnson’s competitive play in practice has challenged Wheeler to improve.

“Diamond has made me better. Coming into this year, she showed up every day, worked hard, and she made my defense better,” Wheeler said. “She made my offense [and] my communications with my teammates better.”

In return, Wheeler has helped Johnson adjust to the MEAC style of basketball, where trash talk and fouls are commonplace. In January, the teammates were named to the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Midseason Watch List, the only representatives from an HBCU. 

“[The MEAC is] tough. It’s gritty. I think she was used to Rutgers and NC State. They don’t let nobody touch [each other] in the ACC and Big Ten,” Wheeler said. “In the MEAC, they don’t care about that little push, that little extra boxout. That’s just part of the game, and I feel like she’s adjusted to that.”

Johnson has spent the last few weeks working on getting everyone involved on offense and finding consistency on the offensive and defensive sides of the floor. Wheeler believes Johnson’s style of play complements the team. This season, the Spartans are the second-best offense in the MEAC and the first-ranked defense.

“Her coming on the floor opens up the floor,” Wheeler said. “We have been a defensive team in the past, but she’s the downright shooter, downright scorer, and we never had that dynamic added to us.”

Norfolk State guard Diamond Johnson has spent the last few weeks working on getting the Spartans involved on offense and finding consistency on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor.

Naje Murray/ NSU Athletics

A season ago Norfolk State led the nation in field goal percentage defense and three of its players made the MEAC all-defensive team. Now Johnson is leaning into the Spartans’ defensive identity.

She earned her first conference defensive player of the week honors of her college career after tallying four steals against University of North Carolina Wilmington on Dec. 28, 2023. Over the next two games, she recorded seven steals against Longwood University and nine steals against South Carolina State University.

[Vickers] is defensive-minded,” Johnson said. “It was kind of cool, because it pushed me harder to become a better defensive player, because I didn’t want to be looked at as just a scorer.”

Last season, Norfolk State finished with its best conference record in 15 years (26-7 overall, 11-3 MEAC). This season, the Spartans are 16-5 (5-1 MEAC) with eight games remaining before the MEAC tournament in March. Their only conference loss this season was to Howard on Jan. 20, a rematch of the last two MEAC tournament championship games.

Norfolk State’s early exit in the NCAA tournament last year has fueled Johnson and the team to work harder to defend the Spartans’ conference championship title.

“We know what it’s going to take to do what we want to do. Obviously we want to be MEAC champs and to go back to the NCAA tournament. So we know we have to keep fighting. We have to keep getting better every day,” Johnson said.

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."