By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Head Hog Eric Musselman wasted no time bolstering his frontline by dipping into the transfer portal at the conclusion of his Arkansas basketball program’s second consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eight run as he snatched up four long, tall, and athletic big men in the span of a week bridging the end of April to the first few days of May.
But right there under his nose was returning veteran forward Kamani Johnson, a rare multi-year program fixture who had proven himself enough midway through his first season competing as a Hog (2021-22) to forge a role at the back end of Musselman’s tight 7-8 player rotation.
Johnson (6-7, 230, senior, native of Brooklyn, N.Y.) is as good an answer as any, maybe the best answer right now, for the starting 5-spot in the upcoming ’22-23 campaign that is still a couple of months away from tipping up.
Johnson’s impact and production in Europe last month is proof of concept. He got out of the gates well, contributing 12 points and 9 rebounds in Arkansas’ 108-59 win over Valencia Seleccion on Aug. 9 in Valencia, Spain, in the first contest of the team’s four-game exhibition tour.
“Yeah, I thought Kamani did a fabulous job for sure,” Musselman said after his team’s winning debut in Spain. “Played hard, came off the bench, played with energy. I thought he played really well, which is what we needed from a returning player.”
That was only the start of sterling Johnson performances overseas. He clearly and consistently distanced himself from Arkansas’ 5-spot pack as the Hogs’ romped to a 4-0 record (two games in Spain followed by two games in Italy). He was a blue-collar force using his powerful 6-7 frame to carve out space and bang against other big bodies while leading the team in rebounds at 9.5 boards per game (including 4.5 on the offensive glass) to go with 9.3 points (13-of-20 field goals for 65.0% and 11-of-13 free throws for 84.6%), 2.8 assists, and 1.3 steals.
Meanwhile, frontline newcomers Jalen Graham (6-9 senior transfer from Arizona State) and the Mitchell twins (6-10 Makhel and 6-9 Makhi, both senior transfers from Rhode Island) combined for 7.0 points (13-of-29 field goals for 44.8% and 2-of-5 free throws for 40%) and 2.2 rebounds per game as Johnson gobbled up most of the frontline playing time along with sophomore transfer Trevon Brazile (6-10 stretch-4).
Maybe the biggest advantage for Johnson — he joined the program mid-season in ’20-21 and redshirted — is his familiarity with and understanding of Musselman’s expectations, not only for playing his position but all the nuances within the Head Hog’s program.
Johnson knows his role. He plays hard with a focus on winning one possession at a time, and he embodies the energy, effort, and drive that Musselman hopes is infectious with the rest of the team. If anyone has earned Musselman’s trust anchoring the center spot to this point, it’s Johnson.
Although it’s not a given that he’s sewn up a starting role with so much time before the start of the regular season as Graham and the Mitchell twins are likely to acclimate to expectations and mesh better within the framework of the team between now and then, Johnson was a great complement to the talents of Brazile as well as a loaded guard and wing rotation that included Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black, Devo Davis, Ricky Council IV, Jordan Walsh, and Barry Dunning, Jr.
He’s also been through SEC wars in the paint battling the likes of Kentucky’s returning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe.
Last season Johnson broke through to forge a role, albeit a limited one, at a point when Arkansas had lost 5 of 6 games (including an 0-3 start to SEC play). His first and only start of the season came at home against Missouri on Jan. 12, an 87-43 demolition that put the Hogs in the win column for the first time in league play as Johnson finished with 4 points and 4 rebounds in 9 minutes. An injury sustained in the win kept Johnson out of the lineup for the next two games, but he returned to help Arkansas to a 13-5 final league mark en route to the program’s second consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eight and final national Top 10 ranking.
In 26 games, Johnson averaged 2.3 points (62.1% field goals and 53.5% free throws), 2.7 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 0.3 assists, and 0.2 steals in 7.8 minutes per outing (his 203 total minutes ranked 8th-most on the team). His production worked out to impressive per-40-minute averages — 11.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.4 assists, and 1.2 steals.
Johnson scored a season-high 15 points (3-of-4 field goals and 9-of-13 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 17 minutes in an 81-55 home win over Elon on Dec. 21. He had 7 points (1-of-1 field goal and 5-of-6 free throws) and a season-high 8 rebounds in 19 minutes in an 86-81 road loss against Texas A&M. He played a season-high 24 minutes in Arkansas’ 78-74 road loss to No. 13 Tennessee in the teams’ SEC finale on March 5, recording 6 points and a season-high-matching 8 rebounds. He appeared only briefly in the NCAAT, logging a total of 5 minutes combined against Gonzaga and Duke.
Before coming to Arkansas as a transfer from the in-state Little Rock Trojans in October of 2020, Johnson had a history competing against Musselman-coached teams.
In an unprecedented preseason exhibition game between Little Rock and Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Oct. 20, 2019 — the day the Razorbacks unveiled Nolan Richardson Court to honor the Naismith Hall of Famer — Johnson was impressive while recording a double-double against the Hogs: 13 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal in 24 minutes in a 79-64 defeat.
Johnson went on to be named All Sun Belt Conference third team in that ’19-20 sophomore campaign after helping Little Rock to 21 wins and the league title. He started 25 of 31 games and averaged 11.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists while shooting 51.3% from the field (98-of-191 field goals) and 72.7% from the free throw line (144-of-198 free throws) in 27.7 minutes per outing.
As a freshman in ’18-19, Johnson also faced a Musselman-coached team — No. 6 Nevada in Reno on November 2018 — as the Trojans’ rookie recorded 7 points and 6 rebounds in 15 minutes in an 87-59 road loss.
“Kamani comes from a winning program and he has been well coached in a really good system by (Little Rock Trojans head coach and former Hog great) Darrell Walker,” Musselman said in an October 2020 press release that announced the addition of Johnson to the Razorbacks’ program. “He plays extremely hard and is one of the best free throw attempt players in the country. Kamani’s rebounding ability will be an asset and he will fit into our philosophy of trying to get to the free throw line.”