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If you walk into any rec center or outdoor basketball courts in Prince George's County, Md. and mention some of the best players to ever come from that basketball rich community, the name DerMarr Johnson better ring out. If it doesn’t, something's wrong. 
 
“D.J. was talked about like he was LeBron before LeBron was LeBron,” DeMatha Catholic head coach Mike Jones said.
 
Picture a 16-year-old kid with tons of basketball skill, athletically gifted and a mind for the game tearing up courts in the area in the late 1990s. Sounds like a phenom from Akron, Ohio just a few years later. And if not for an NBA rule at the time restricting non-high school graduates from entering the NBA Draft, DerMarr might have made that leap to the highest level of basketball even before graduating.
 
Those who watched DerMarr play in high school often spoke about his confidence on the court. Keith Stevens, currently the CEO of the Team Takeover AAU program, was a coach on staff at The Newport School in Kensington, Md. That’s in Montgomery County, where DerMarr went to school. But make no mistake, that was a world away from his home in Riverdale. 

Stevens recalls a time when, even as a junior, college recruiters and NBA scouts had DerMarr on their radar. Even legendary former players from the very best college programs paid their respects. 
 
“I sat in the bleachers and [North Carolina assistant coach] Phil Ford came to see him [DerMarr] play,” Stevens said. “Also the San Antonio Spurs had someone to come see D.J. play. So, to see that for a kid 16 years old and them telling me this kid’s got an opportunity to do that, it was special.”
 
Things weren’t always so perfect at Newport. Johnson lived with his AAU coach, Curtis Malone, in Greenbelt. But with his grades slipping, DerMarr’s support group decided a change of scenary was needed. He spent his final high school season at Maine Central Institute, a kind of basketball finishing school a million miles from the streets of P.G. County. 

 

It worked. DerMarr graduated from Maine Central and was named Parade Magazine’s player of the year. He was a McDonald’s All-American and a USA Today All-American. He played one spectacular season at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins and with the great Kenyon Martin. Johnson was Conference USA Freshman of the Year averaging 12.6 points-per-game and 3.8 rebounds-per-game. 

The Bearcats were a phenomenon. They went 28-2. They were ranked in the top-5 all season and No. 1 for 12 weeks – until Martin broke his leg in a horrifying injury in the first round of the Conference USA tournament. It didn’t keep him from being taken No. 1 in the 2000 NBA Draft. But it destroyed the Bearcats, who lost in the second round of an NCAA Tournament they easily could have won. 

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Martin was headed to the pros and DerMarr was right behind him. He declared for the NBA Draft after that freshman season. The talent and potential was enough for the Atlanta Hawks, who took Johnson at No. 6. 
 
At 6-foot-9, DerMarr’s game mirrored LeBron James and fellow PG County native Kevin Durant, but he came of age in a kind of social media dead zone. YouTube didn’t exist, let alone Instagram or Twitter. People HEARD about Johnson, but few saw him play at tiny Newport or tucked far away in Maine. He was Parade’s player of the year and there was plenty of attention and pressure about his future. But it wasn’t much different than the great players who came before him. It was much different than what James and Durant would face just a few years later. 

“There was no Internet, we weren’t having high school games on ESPN.” Johnson said. “Nationally, if you on the basketball scene you would know, but it wasn’t crazy like how LeBron’s thing was.”
 
Johnson is being a little over-the-top. The Internet existed when he was in high school in the late 90s. It just wasn’t as all-encompassing as it would become. But those who saw him play – they know. Even Durant, a two-time NBA Champion and the 2014 NBA MVP speaks about DeMarr Johnson with high regard. 
 
“I tell people all the time, DerMarr Johnson was such a huge inspiration, to see his journey , then getting to know him,” Durant told fellow PG County native Quinn Cook on an Instagram Live chat last week. “When I was going into my senior year, we was playing a couple of weeks out in Oxon Hill. He took me under his wing. The OG’s around our way always wanted to see us do well, see us make it to the league. And they still support us until this day”.

 

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