Keyontae Johnson’s remarkable NBA journey could reach its pinnacle on Thursday. He chose his dream over a $5 million insurance payout after a medical incident. Despite a 20-month hiatus, Johnson excelled at Kansas State, earning accolades and entering the 2023 NBA Draft. Cleared by doctors, he has met with teams, showcasing his versatility. Johnson’s story is one of resilience, and he eagerly awaits draft night, ready to continue his basketball career at the NBA level.
Yahoo Sports: NBA Draft: Keyontae Johnson ‘never gave up’ on himself after medical incident kept him off court for 20 months
Krysten Peek; June 16, 2023
Keyontae Johnson’s journey to the NBA is the best story in basketball, and Thursday night could be the culmination of a dream that once seemed far off. Last fall, Johnson and his family were faced with a decision no other player in this draft class had to go through — pursue his dream of being a professional basketball player or collect a $5 million insurance payout for a medical incident that took place two years prior while playing for Florida. Johnson suddenly collapsed while walking out of a timeout during a game at Florida State and was in a coma for three days.
“If I can make it to the league, it no longer becomes about the money I gave up but what my future could be and I just didn’t want to settle,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports in March.
From the time the game of basketball was temporarily taken away from him in December 2020, Johnson has bet on himself and defied all odds and expectations.
After 20 months off the court, Johnson transferred to Kansas State for his senior season and it didn’t take him long to impact a team that would eventually make a run to the Elite Eight. He averaged 17.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game and was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and selected to the All-Big 12 first team.
“We obviously would not have had the season we had without him,” Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang told Yahoo Sports. “He stepped into a leadership role on a new team and has made everyone around him better.”
Johnson entered the 2023 NBA Draft after the season and was met with another hurdle. He had to be cleared by three different doctors on the NBA medical panel to even qualify for the NBA Draft. On May 26, a week after the NBA Draft Combine, Johnson was cleared.
Johnson’s draft range is anywhere from late-first round to mid-second round. He was diagnosed with “athlete’s heart,” or an increase in cardiac mass because of systemic training after his collapse, but he has been healthy ever since.
“Some teams might be scared to take a chance on me and I understand that,” Johnson said. “I can only control what I can control throughout this process, but I know the player I am and wherever I land will be a blessing.”
After being cleared, Johnson was eligible to start traveling and working out for different teams. He met with several teams during the NBA Draft Combine, including the Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers.
“I can’t even believe I’m here after everything that happened, to be honest,” Johnson said at the combine. “I’m just blessed to be in this position, and I’m enjoying the moment and love going through this process with all these guys.”
The NBA Draft is Thursday and all the attention is focused on presumptive No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama and the young talent projected at the top. Quietly waiting in the wings is Johnson who is a 3-point threat on offense and can guard 1-through-4 on defense.
“He’s a pro,” Tang said. “No doubt about it, and he’s going to help a team win a lot of games.”
“What I can bring to any team next year is my physicality on offense and just being able to knock down threes and using my athleticism to get to the rim,” Johnson added. “On defense, I can guard anyone on the court, so hopefully in workouts they’ll see that versatility and how I can fit into multiple positions.”
The game of basketball was taken away from Johnson for an extended period of time, putting him in a unique spot among this draft class. Johnson’s career will continue, something he never thought would be possible two years ago. Emotions will be high on draft night, understandably so, as he continues to write his own story against all odds.
“I’ll probably cry for sure on draft night,” Johnson said. “Just going through a lot and finally getting drafted will be a blessing and showing everyone I never gave up on myself and all the hard work I went through to get back on the court. I can’t wait to hit the NBA and continue to work. This is what I love to do.”
Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images