Unapologetically himself: Dior Johnson looks to usher in a new era of Pitt hoops


Image via Pitt Athletics

Freshman guard Dior Johnson at Pitt men’s basketball’s first practice of the season at the Petersen Events Center on Monday afternoon.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Unrefined honesty is sometimes hard to find in today’s sports world. When athletes put themselves out in front of the media, they often put on a facade, saying what they think everyone wants to hear. Pitt first-year guard Dior Johnson, on the other hand, doesn’t subscribe to that mindset.

Despite being one of the most well-known and talented high school athletes in the country over the last four years, Pitt first-year guard Dior Johnson is as straightforward as they come.

Since he was young, Johnson has dreamed of playing in the NBA. Despite the fact that all signs point to the star guard playing just one year at Pitt, Johnson knows that he has business to take care of at the college level.

“I’ll be real as possible with you — I am trying to get out of this place as fast as possible,” Johnson said. “But how can you do that without making that college year a great one? I can’t put my head in the pros until I make this great.”

While the idea that Johnson is so hyper-focused on the NBA may not sit well with some fans, it’s the reality of the situation for countless first-year players of Johnson’s stature. But unlike many of his peers, Johnson feels no need to mince his words.

He’s confident in his abilities, and will let people know.

Johnson was born in Kingston, NY — a town about 60 miles north of New York City — to a basketball family who introduced him to the game at a young age.

“My grandmothers watched basketball, I had cousins and uncles who played basketball… we come from a sports family,” Johnson said. “I grew up in basketball shoes.”

By the time Dior was 12 years old, he knew that basketball was his passion. He played at the varsity level while in middle school and continued to progress through the New York amateur ranks, gradually gaining more and more exposure. 

In 7th and 8th grade, Johnson began playing with Saugerties High School, where he became the youngest player in New York state history to score 1,000 points.

According to an article by Matthew Gutierrez in The Athletic, Johnson would “…conduct his own dribbling drills on the side of the court. Johnson had no trainer from whom he learned. He taught himself. He’d dribble in the locker room, trying to perfect ball-handling skills that scouts agree remind them of one star: Kyrie Irving.”

This was all before he was officially in high school. Even at a young age, Johnson had a vivid image of what he wanted his future to look like.

“When I was in fourth grade I thought I was going to the NBA,” Johnson said. “I’m super confident but not only that, you’ve got to have faith … you’ve got to go after it.”

There was no looking back for Johnson after he got to high school. A mainstay at the top of the ESPN 100 rankings, Johnson quickly made the jump from prodigy to bona fide star at the high school level.

Johnson continued to dominate on the court, but as his career progressed, some began to take issue with Johnson’s actions outside the lines.

When looking at Johnson’s player profile, something that stands out is the extensive list of the high schools that he attended. The list consists of 10 schools in five different states. Writers, scouts and others docked him in their rankings and cited concerns about whether Johnson would stick around in college.

So why all the movement?

For starters, Johnson hasn’t played a full year of basketball since his sophomore year of high school. Injuries kept him on the sideline for a chunk of his amateur career, and Johnson said he continued to feel as though he was in the wrong situation.

Despite the criticism, he regrets none of it.

“I’m glad how my high school career went. It taught me a lot, I learned a lot at each stop, and I’m a better person today,” Johnson said. “I made it to college. Not many guys can do that… it’s a restart.”

For Johnson, finding the right spot for that restart to take place was a process. After originally committing to play at Syracuse in 2020, Johnson decommitted in just under a year and switched his commitment to Oregon. Earlier this year, Johnson decommitted yet again and unexpectedly signed with Pitt soon after.

According to 247Sports, Johnson is the highest-rated signee under head coach Jeff Capel and 4th highest in program history. While the process of acquiring Johnson was quick, Capel felt as though the two clicked immediately.

“Dior is an outstanding prospect and one of the top guards in the class of 2022,” Capel said. “We were able to develop a quick connection when he reopened his recruitment.”

Johnson also felt the connection soon after his conversation with Capel. He had connected with the Pitt head coach through mutual connections. Johnson didn’t want to draw out the recruiting process again, so he quickly signed with Pitt.

“When it came to picking a school, I wanted to make things simple,” Johnson said. “I only went on about three or four college visits my whole high school career.”

While Pitt has managed to attract high-profile recruits in the past, there is something about Johnson that makes him different. His extensive influence on social media makes Johnson a rare breed — both on and off the court.

Johnson has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram and is an established name in amateur basketball. In the word of NIL, that equates to extensive financial opportunities off the court. However, Johnson noted that due to his preexisting status, NIL played no role in him choosing Pitt.

“It didn’t [play a role in his decision]. I could’ve gone to other schools for NIL,” Johnson said.  “I came to Pitt. I have my own situation with NIL already.”

Despite his success at the high school level, Johnson still feels as though he has something to prove.

“I was the number one point guard in the country since my freshman year of high school and stopped being [number one] my senior year of high school,” Johnson said. “25 guys don’t get better than you in five months. I’m going to just be honest with you. Doesn’t happen.”

Johnson came to Pitt on a mission to prove to others that he can live up to his potential and silence critics who point to that long list of high schools and previous college commitments. Since arriving on campus, Johnson said he has already connected with his new teammates.

“We gel every day,” Johnson said. “We are trying to build a winning culture, so we don’t have time to not gel every day.”

Johnson’s teammate, fifth-year guard Jamarius Burton, has also noticed a new energy around the young Pitt team.

“I would say the difference with this group is the competitive energy,” Burton said. “Everybody’s coming in each and every day looking forward to not only being there, but winning every drill.”

Johnson specifically noted his connection with fellow newcomer guard Nelly Cummings, who arrived from Colgate after making a name for himself in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson believes he and Cummings can complement each other well in the backcourt, and that the two will work well together.

“I’m a fast, crafty, explosive downhill guard and can create off the dribble … Nelly can really create off the dribble and really shoot the three ball,” Johnson said. “The ball finds what it needs.” 

There is no doubt that Johnson wants to hear his name called at the NBA Draft sooner than later. But he is focused on the present and has a drive to win for however long he dons the blue and gold.

“Guys coming to college could be the number one player in the country. Doesn’t mean you’re going to have a great year,” Johnson said. “Know where you stand and make everything make you go hard.”