Growing up in Philadelphia, basketball was always a constant for Penn State guards D.J. Newbill and John Johnson.
Newbill flourished at Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia, while Johnson played just five minutes away at Girard College high school for three years.
And considering the two guards are less than a year apart and both were city standouts in their own right, Newbill and Johnson duked it out on the court quite a bit starting as early age 12.
“Even when I was in high school, all the showcases put me and D.J. up against each other and they always made us like the primetime game,” Johnson said. “That’s what everyone in the city wanted to see.”
Newbill echoed his fellow guard’s statement, but said with a laugh that he’d never lost to Johnson.
Fast forward almost a decade later and the two guards are at it once again, only now it’s at the Bryce Jordan Center, not a high school showcase.
Not only do both these guards hail from the basketball-rich city of Philadelphia, but they also both started their collegiate careers somewhere other than Happy Valley.
Newbill transferred to Penn State following his freshman campaign at Southern Mississippi and had to sit out last year due to NCAA rules. While Newbill is cleared to play this season, Johnson — who transferred to Penn State after playing in all 39 games last season as a freshman at Pittsburgh — is stuck in the same situation his friend faced last season.
Despite playing in every game of the 2011-12 season, Johnson didn’t log a single minute in the Panthers’ 32-point opening-season win against Mount St. Mary’s.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said after the game that Johnson was sick, the guard took to Twitter and said, “I’m not hurt, I’m not sick,” prompting reports he was upset with playing time.
After being committed to the Panthers since his sophomore year of high school, Johnson decided to make a switch in early December, and he landed at Penn State.
“D.J kind of influenced me to come here. I have a great relationship with D.J,” Johnson said. “…So he kind of influenced the situation, and [coach Patrick Chambers] preaches everything I want in a school: family and attitude.”
Both Philly kids continue to square off in practice as the Pitt transfer runs the scout team. Whether he’s running the point or assuming a pure shooter role, Johnson challenges Newbill every day — just like their high school days.
And not only does Newbill work up a sweat going up against Johnson, but he also acknowledges the effort Johnson gives on the scout team. That effort is something Newbill admires, considering he was in the same position last year when he consistently went against point guard Tim Frazier.
“I just appreciate him. He comes in and helps me get better every day because he’s constantly coming at me and forcing me to rise my level of intensity,” Newbill said.
As Newbill learns and gets better during these one-on-ones, Chambers watches a guard in Johnson who has the capability to generate serious scoring production next season.
While the Lions haven’t gotten much offensive production from its frontcourt this year, the backcourt looks to be stacked next year with Frazier recovering from injury, Newbill and Jermaine Marshall returning, three-star combo guard Geno Thorpe coming in and Johnson entering the picture.
And if Johnson’s impression left on Chambers is any indication, this group of guards has a boatload of potential heading into 2013-14.
“He’s lit us up like a Christmas tree a few times,” Chambers said. “He can really score the basketball. He scores in bunches and scores in a variety of ways. Threes, floaters, pull-ups, fadeaways… I mean he’s got every shot you could possibly need as a combo guard to score.”
But for now, Johnson said he is focused on what he can bring to the scout team to make the Lions a better team this season.
Not only do Newbill and Johnson have a solid relationship off the court, but what they do for each other on it will only help the Lions moving forward.
“They’re best friends off the floor, but there’s a lot of competitive spirit there during games and they get after it during practice,” Chambers said. “They get after one another. So [Johnson] brings that toughness, that push, that drive that D.J. brought for Tim last year, and John does it for D.J. this year.”