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Great Expectations: Johnson is the Rockets' engine

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By Laura Clark

Donovan Johnson makes the kind of “wow” plays that should be on a highlight reel: rowdy dunks and blocks that nearly decapitate the too-close cheerleaders.

His Shelby County High School teammates and coaches have come to expect such momentum-changing plays on a routine basis, but they also expect him to do the grunt work, keeping the team focused and guarding an opponent’s best player. Oh, and walking away with a victory and a statistical double-double.

“I expect to win every game if Donovan’s on the court, because he’s one of the best players in the state,” fellow senior Nigel Beach said. “When Don blocks shots, he blocks them out of bounds. You can hear it, and you can hear him yell.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound forward, leads the Rockets (17-4) in blocks, points and rebounds. He’s averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game his senior season, up from 17 and 8 as a junior.

“To this point he’s had a player-of-the-year-in-the-region type season,” Rocket Coach Mike Clark said. “We expect him to be the best player on the floor each night, and he’s been able to meet those expectations most every game.”

Clark recalled Johnson guarding Trinity’s stellar player, Josh Sewell, during an early December victory over one of the state's top-ranked teams.

“He held Sewell to nine points while scoring 20 and grabbing nine rebounds,” Clark said.

He praised Johnson’s improvement on the offensive boards, his scoring contributions both in the paint and on the perimeter and his passionate play. Is this guy perfect or what?

Well, Johnson says, his role as an on-court defensive organizer sometimes gets in the way of playing.

“I’ll be making sure everybody is doing the right thing, and my man will go and score on me,” he said.

Consider it a trickle-down effect. Johnson comes from a long line of basketball stars. His three uncles – David, Patrick and James Michael Marshall – all played for Shelby County. So did his mom, Gwenella Marshall, aunt Lucille Marshall and cousin Charlotte Marshall. He recently joined several of them in the 1,000-point club.

“They’re always pressuring me, but they want me to do good,” Johnson said. “They give me a lot of tips.”

He takes his role as a leader pretty seriously, and his teammates know it.

“Don, he can get mad at you,” Beach said. “He’s a big cheerleader out on the court. He’ll let you know if you need to do something better, too.”

But he’s never one to be hard on you long. Beach said he has a personality like LeBron James: “always playing, joking around.”

And entertaining. Beach recalled a play Johnson made in a victory over South Oldham.

“Coming down the court on a fast break, 3-on-2, he gave the crossover and went up and dunked it. It was a nasty dunk,” Beach said.

Keeping his head in the game on the back of great plays like that seems easy for Johnson. But then again, he thrives just being on the court.

“The crowd, intensity, the rush you get off of the tip, scoring – everything. I just love the game,” Johnson said.

He hopes to get a chance to keep playing after graduation. Nothing is for certain yet, but Clark is “very confident” Johnson will play at the next level, perhaps for a Division I school.

Though as far as high expectations go, Johnson has one of his own.

“I really want to go back to Rupp Arena, the State Tournament, and do good there, better than my sophomore year, when we went to the final four,” he said.