Since arriving on the scene two years ago, junior forward Tyrell Johnson has made quite a bit of noise for the Appalachian State men’s basketball team.
His versatility, rebounding ability and soft shooting touch are all reasons why he was brought in by head coach Jim Fox, and are also a big part of why he is on the court so much today.
After a very successful high school career, where he received all-state honors in 2015, the Atlanta native hit the ground running his freshman year. He worked his way into the starting lineup very early in the season, in which he averaged around four points and four rebounds a game. Scoring in double figures on multiple occasions, Johnson showed that he could hold his own against the tougher competition that college basketball can bring.
After an exciting freshman campaign, Johnson’s determination to improve in his role on the team drastically increased. While most of his classmates were at home enjoying their summer, Johnson knew that there was no time to waste if he wanted to get better.
During the gap between his freshman and sophomore year, he gained over 30 pounds in order to increase his already dominant presence in the post. He knew he would have to carry a bigger load, and as a result, he improved statistically in almost every category, especially in scoring, in which he almost doubled his average.
Bulking up his frame also made Johnson even more of a threat defensively, as his lanky 6-foot-8-inch build combined with his length and athleticism gives him the ability to guard any position on the floor. He led the team in blocked shots that season with 33.
Entering his junior year, there was quite a buzz around the Holmes Convocation Center about how Johnson would perform this year. There was also talk about Fox potentially playing a bigger lineup, which would result in Johnson playing as a wing player, rather than in the post like he had in the past.
Many big men may struggle to adjust to a position where they may have to play on the perimeter and handle the ball more, but Johnson said he adapted to this change very easily and has embraced the opportunity.
“I watched a lot of film with the coaches to see how I would fit best on the perimeter, and just in the gym to work on my jump shot and ball handling ability,” Johnson said.
Flourishing in his new role, Johnson has become one of the first names on any of his opponent’s scouting report. He started all nine competitions this season and is currently averaging 9 points and four rebounds a game and has posted double figures in four games this season, including a career high 20 points in a 95-57 win against Bridgewater College. Johnson is also shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line, which is almost 20 percent higher than in his previous season.
While his on-court performances are very impressive, Johnson’s dedication and work ethic are also just as crucial to the team’s success. With only one freshman on the roster, the Mountaineers have developed into a very mature squad, where leadership can be found from top to bottom.
“I think that’s just with growth. Watching film with the coaches and seeing what I’m doing wrong and adjusting to it has helped me become a more mature player,” Johnson said. “I think I do well talking on the court, but I definitely need to get better talking off the court.”
He is currently fifth on the team in minutes played, and while he is an excellent player, part of the reason why Fox keeps him on the court is because of the person he is.
“Tyrell has shown tremendous commitment to getting better. He works tirelessly in the weight room and tirelessly in the gym,” Fox said. “Tyrell is a guy that everyone on the team likes. He really has the respect from his teammates because of how much time and work he has put in.”
Fox is not the only person who has noticed his impact to the team, with teammates also acknowledging how important his presence is. After a big win against South Florida, where Johnson posted 13 points and had three offensive rebounds, his teammates freshman guard Justin Forrest and junior guard Ronshad Shabazz also had some kind words to say about him.
“He gets things like offensive rebounds and putbacks, and that deflates a team” Shabazz said. “He’s finishing plays like that, and that deflates the other team.”
After a rough season in which App State finished with a less-than-stellar 9-21 record, they appear to be on a track for major improvement this year. Several of their wins have come over well-known opponents such as Davidson College, who were Atlantic 10 Conference Champions and made an NCAA tournament appearance in 2015. Johnson’s strong play is part of the reason why the Mountaineers are on track to improve on last year’s record very early in the season.
“Tyrell is just an aggressive player, no matter if he’s scoring or playing on defense, and it’s just fun playing with him,” Forrest said. “We know what he can do, and he’s just now showing everybody else what he can do.”
Story by: Zack Antrum, Intern Sports Reporter
Photos by: Lindsay Vaughn, Senior Photographer