March 22, 2024 

Diamond Johnson returns to the big stage with Norfolk State

Johnson, at her third school in four years, makes her second trip to the NCAA Tournament as her Norfolk State prepares to take on on Stanford

STANFORD, Calif. — Diamond Johnson’s search for a place that felt like home ended at Norfolk State.

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“I just felt like I needed support from my family and my friends,”Johnson said. “I just wanted to go a different route with the HBCU.”

Johnson is at her third school in four years and in her second trip to the NCAA Tournament, having played for North Carolina State in 2021-22 and 2022-23 after beginning her career at Rutgers. She’s back on the NCAA stage, leading the 15th seeded Spartans (27-5) into Friday evening’s game against second-seeded Stanford at Maples Pavilion.

The five-star recruit from Philadelphia, who went to high school in Virginia, has settled in at a place that gives her comfort, culture and a chance to continue her quest to become a WNBA player.

Johnson, as a second-time transfer, spent the fall and early part of the season at Norfolk State awaiting approval of her transfer waiver from the NCAA (a federal judge ultimately ruled on the eligibility of second-time transfers). She used that time to heal an ankle injury that ended her junior season at North Carolina State prematurely last February.

She played her first game of the season more than a month into the schedule, on Dec. 16, at Auburn.

Through 22 games this season with the Spartans, Johnson is averaging 20.3 points a game. She’s also recorded 5.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 84 steals, making her a defensive threat to opposing perimeter players. She has put up 13 20-point games this season and two games with at least 30. Johnson helped to lead Norfolk to the MEAC championship with a 13-1 record. She later helped secure a conference tournament title and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

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An unconventional decision

Johnson’s decision to transfer from N.C. State to an HBCU took many by surprise. She kept her intention to transfer as low-key as she could while she rehabbed her ankle injury.

In her announcement video, she said, “a lot of people think you always have to go to Power Five schools to get to your [dream], going to the WNBA, going pro. But I don’t think it always has to be like that. You can go to HBCUs, mid-majors. I think you can develop there and still chase your dreams.”

Johnson said that Norfolk State coach Larry Vickers was “real” with her during the recruiting process. He ensured that her experience would be different than it was in her Power Five stints.

“I felt that,” Johnson said. “And everything is happening how it [was supposed to] play out, how he said it would play out. He knew my goals. I still want to go to the WNBA. And I think he’s preparing me for my goals and here I am again back on the big stage.”

Johnson played in 58 games over two seasons with the Wolfpack, averaging 12.3 points to lead the team and hitting 105 3-pointers in those two campaigns. 

The 5-foot-5 guard, who considers fellow Philly native South Carolina coach Dawn Staley her role model, was a Top 10 finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award in 2022.

At Rutgers, where she began her career out of high school, she was a member of the 2021 Big Ten All-Freshman Team and a second-team all-conference pick.

Vickers joked that he thought someone was “pulling his coattails” when he got word that Johnson, now the highest-rated recruit ever to play for the Spartans program, was interested in transferring to Norfolk State.

“For her to see our program and say there’s something special about that one, you know, when we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars in NIL and things like that, I guess it just kind of speaks to the way we do things,” Vickers said. “She thought it was something that she could be successful in.”

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Johnson’s invaluable impact on the court

Vickers called Johnson a “professional scorer.”

“That’s what she is,” Vickers said. “She has every shot in the shot tree when they talk about three-level scorers. Sometimes man, I wonder, does she have a fourth-level? She just has a knack of finding ways to get her shot off, and that can’t really be taught.”

Vickers has adapted his offense to suit her, including multiple reads and off-ball action that played to her strengths.

“We do run a lot of pro-style stuff. Stuff that I think will help her on the next level – making advanced reads.”

Johnson and Vickers have to know that a player as dominant as Johnson will draw the scouting report attention of Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. Her mission will be to reduce Johnson’s ability to do the things she likes to do when the teams face off in the first round.

“You pointed out Diamond Johnson,” VanDerveer said. “But they are a complete team. We know that we’re going to be very challenged, and we will have to play very well. Our team is really excited about the opportunity.”

The level of excitement VanDerveer mentions will be matched by Johnson and her teammates.

“We have to be real disciplined, be smart, rebound the ball well,” Johnson said. “And we know it’s going to be a tough game. We just have to go out there, give it our all.”

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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