Markell Johnson is arguably N.C. State’s best and most valuable player.
Playing without Johnson hasn’t been easy for No. 21 N.C. State but second-year coach Kevin Keatts isn’t sure when Johnson will be back in the lineup.
“He could play Thursday or he could play three or four weeks from now,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said on Tuesday.
N.C. State (15-3, 3-2 ACC) travels to Louisville (13-5, 4-1) on Thursday with no real timetable for Johnson’s return from a back injury.
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The 6-1, 175-pound junior from Cleveland is third on the team in scoring (11.6 points per game) and leads the Wolfpack in assists (4.1 per game).
Johnson crashed to the floor in the first half of a home win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 12. Johnson jumped up on a fastbreak to block a layup attempt by Pitt’s Jared Wilson-Frame. Johnson caught his feet on Wilson-Frame’s back and fell to the floor.
“He fell on his hip and his back and he’s really, really sore,” Keatts said. “It’s going to take some time for him to recover from that.”
Johnson didn’t travel with the team on Jan. 15 to Wake Forest, a 71-67 loss. He did make the trip to Notre Dame, a 77-73 win, but was unable to warm up or play.
Johnson has been participating in non-contact drills in practice the past few days, Keatts said.
“I think it has gotten better each day,” Keatts said.
But Keatts wasn’t able to put a target date on Johnson’s return.
“I’m not going to play him until mentally and physically he feels ready to play,” Keatts said. “There won’t be any pressure on our end. We’re prepared to go into every game for the next few games without him.
“If he’s able to play, and he feels though he can play and the doctors and trainers say he can play, then certainly we’d love to him back into our lineup somewhere playing.”
Without Johnson, Keatts has relied on a combination of guards Braxton Beverly and C.J. Bryce to run the offense.
Beverly, who usually plays more off the ball as N.C. State’s 3-point specialist, had three points and four assists against the Irish.
Bryce had a season-high 23 points, with three assists and a turnover, in the win at Notre Dame.
“Markell is a big piece of our puzzle,” Bryce said. “Playing without him can be tough at times, because he’s our starting point guard, but whatever I need to do for the team to win I’m willing to do it.”
Johnson has been N.C. State’s primary playmaker the past two seasons. He led the ACC in assists last season but has developed into more of a go-to scorer this season.
He had 27 points in N.C. State’s best win of the season, a 78-71 home win over Auburn on Dec. 19, and was instrumental in the comeback win at Miami on Jan. 3.