March 10, 2024 

Inside Raven Johnson’s defensive impact through the eyes of her teammates

'She’s always up for the challenge by saying, ‘I want to guard her’ or ‘She’s not scoring on me,’ so hearing those things makes me want to do that too'

GREENVILLE, S.C. — When opposing offenses inbound the ball, they are quickly met by South Carolina sophomore Raven Johnson, a pesky 5’8 guard who suffocates ball handlers with her length, lighting-quick footwork, and tenacious defensive pressure. 

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There’s simply not a more versatile point-of-attack defender in the country than Johnson. 

“She’s always there in help side, she’s a great on-ball defender, always hogging down,” junior wing Bree Hall told The Next. “It’s great [playing with her], she’s also really good at communicating.”

Johnson’s physical profile is unmatched. At 5’8 with a 6’2.5 wingspan, her length is in the 99th percentile among smaller guards and compares closely with some wings. Johnson also has an insanely strong and sturdy base, keeping drivers from pushing her around and knocking her off her spots. 

For reference, her wingspan is longer than WNBA All-Star wing Rhyne Howard (6’2 with a 6’2 wingspan) and a half-inch shorter than Rookie of the Year finalist Diamond Miller (6’3 with a 6’3 wingspan). 

However, Johnson’s defensive impact stretches far beyond her physical gifts.

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The South Carolina guard has cat-like timing, impressive hip flexibility, lateral quickness around screens, and a downright elite motor.

“I think defense starts with heart,” Raven Johnson told The Next. “If you have heart and want to play defense, it’s going to come. You don’t have to be the greatest defensive player in the country to play defense; you just have that [energy].”

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso, a former AAU teammate of Johnson, also spoke highly of how her defense is a difference-maker for the Gamecocks:

“Her defense is amazing, and it’s been like that since she was younger,” Cardoso told The Next. “She applies pressure [and] will pick up [opposing ball-handlers] full-court; seeing how she plays defense also gives us the energy to play defense like her.”

Johnson has the sixth-highest Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus1 (dRAPM) in the country and the second-highest among players under 5’10, trailing only Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo.

“She applies pressure,” sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins told The Next. “She knows who can handle the pressure and who can’t handle the pressure.”

Additionally, Johnson has been an invaluable defensive role model for 5’10 freshman guard Tessa Johnson in her transition to the college level. 

“To be a pest,” Tessa Johnson told The Next about what she’s learned from Raven Johnson on defense. “She’s always annoying to other teams. I don’t have the speed that Raven has, but it’s more mental than anything. She’s always up for the challenge by saying, ‘I want to guard her’ or ‘She’s not scoring on me,’ so hearing those things makes me want to do that too.”

Johnson’s defensive efforts against the opponent’s primary ball-handler will be crucial for the SEC Tournament champions and unbeaten Gamecocks (32-0) in the NCAA Tournament. 

In the words of Aliyah Boston after South Carolina’s Final Four loss to Iowa last season,” I told Raven that this is her team. Next year is going to be exciting when she’s really leading the team.”

The SEC Tournament was incredible, but March is just getting started.

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  1. dRAPM is a statistic that measures a player’s impact on their team’s performance while accounting for the influence of teammates and opponents. ↩︎

Written by Hunter Cruse

Hunter Cruse covers the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA Draft for The Next.

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