MEMPHIS—For a stretch of Monday night’s game, James Johnson looked like the player the Bulls envisioned when they selected him 16th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft.
The athletic, strong 6-foot-9 forward showed off his ball handling, explosiveness, defensive prowess and overall versatility, en route to a 13-point, 10-rebound, three-block, three-assist effort in 24 minutes of action before fouling out. The only problem was he was doing it in a Grizzlies uniform in the Bulls’ 95-91 win at the FedEx Forum.
Johnson’s journey to Memphis was an arduous one.
Traded to Toronto midway through his second season with the Bulls, he immediately stepped into the Raptors’ starting small-forward role, but the inconsistency that he was plagued with in Chicago resurfaced in Canada. Following yet another trade the subsequent offseason, Johnson landed in Sacramento and again had a chance to start for the Kings on occasion, but without a contract extension, he was forced to attend the Hawks’ training camp as a non-guaranteed roster invite.
Johnson didn’t make Atlanta’s squad, but ended up in the D-League, where he excelled while playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a far cry from the chartered flights and five-star hotels of the NBA. But Johnson played well enough in the minor league to attract the attention of the Grizzlies, who signed him on Dec. 16.
“Man, I’m humbled, humble beginnings. But not only that, it’s been my son, nine-month-old son, Namond,” Johnson explained to CSNChicago.com. “It really manned me up, really made me realize what I was living for and he’s the one who really made me appreciate this more than ever.”
Raw talent was never the issue for Johnson, who had some highlight moments as a rookie under ex-Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro. But his second season, current Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s debut campaign in Chicago, he was stuck behind a glut of forwards, including All-Star small forward Luol Deng and then-newcomer Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup, fellow 2009 draftee Taj Gibson and free-agent acqusitions Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer on the wings.
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Johnson eventually asked to be sent to the D-League due to the lack of playing time—he was the last Bulls player to play in the D-League before second-year point guard Marquis Teague’s assignment last week—before being traded to Toronto.
“I think he’s played very well and he’s had good moments in his career before, with us, with Toronto and it looks like he’s in good shape, and sometimes it takes a while. But he’s got ability and sometimes the opportunity is there,” Thibodeau said. “When we had him—or the year that I was with him—we were loaded at that position. So when he did play, he played well for us. He wanted more and you certainly don’t blame him for that—a young player trying to get established—and I thought he played well in Toronto, when he first got there. So he’s good guy, we’re happy for him and he’s played well.”
Johnson has already become a bit of a fan favorite in Memphis, as the crowd seems to get excited by his always-energetic style of play. He entered Monday’s contest averaging 8.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals and a block per game, in addition to shooting a surprising 43.8 percent from three-point range.
“Man, I love Memphis. A winning organization, all the teammates want to win, everybody wants the same playoff push. It’s easy to acclimate to winners when you feel like you’re one yourself,” Johnson said. “I feel like this team right here really helped me become who I want to be. They let me do it all. They let me shoot, they let me rebound, they let me push the ball. They let me play within myself and I’m just thankful that God put [Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger] in my path because he’s not holding me back. He’s not telling me, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ He’s telling me to go get it and play within my game, and if you’re as confident as I am, then you feel like you can pretty much do everything and you try to limit stuff that you normally would do and do the stuff that will help the team.”
Joerger, in his first year at the helm in Memphis after being the ousted Lionel Hollins’ assistant, likes what he’s seen out of Johnson thus far.
“He brings a lot of energy, plays really hard and his body looks great. I think maybe when he came out of college, he was a little thicker. He’s really leaned up. He’s always had a good spin move and he’d go hard one way, then spin back—he’d use his butt. Now, he’s able to keep going in straight lines with the basketball. His handle’s gotten better. His jump shot’s still a work in progress, but it’s improved. So he’s been out there just doing all the little things that help you stay on the floor, which is go get rebounds, get run outs. He’s attacking the basket, using athleticism and trying to guard even great players at any position, two, three or four for us. So he’s been a nice shot in the arm for us,” the coach said.
“As long as he keeps playing like his back is up against the wall, then he’s going to be fine. He’s very hungry and I think he realizes sometimes we take this life for granted, and I think maybe being out, sometimes that can put things in perspective and he’s playing like he wants to stay in the league for the next 10 years. As long as he plays with that desire level, he’ll stay.”
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More importantly, however, Johnson has matured, something immediately evident in talking to him, though he was always a good-natured person.
“I grew up a little bit. I’ve got a nice head on my shoulders now, got a son and I want to do what’s best for him,” Johnson said. “I kept my tools, tried to keep them as sharp as I can. But now, instead of only working out once or twice a day, I treat it like a job and I’m in the gym all day, every day.”
He remains close to a handful of Bulls teammates, especially Gibson. The pair entered the league together and while Johnson had a higher profile and draft position, Gibson is the one who ended up starting as a rookie, then carving out a niche for himself with the Bulls.
“Me and Taj Gibson are always going to be Day 1 brothers. We got drafted together,” Johnson said. “He’s always going to be an inspiration. From where he came from to where he’s at now, I’m proud of that man.”
For Gibson, Johnson is a cautionary tale.
“That’s my brother, man. We had a long talk last night in the hotel room, talking about how the NBA is and I think he had a tough path. Basically, when you’re coming into this league kind of young, at a young age, you really don’t understand and they tried to drill it into his head early in the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, how hard it is and he kind of took it for granted, and he bounced around. He told me how different teams were,” Gibson told CSNChicago.com.
“He said, ‘You should feel lucky because you never really had a chance to leave the team.’ He was just telling me how hard it was and how many different personalities teams have. The stories he was telling me, they were horrific. He finally had a situation in Atlanta and they put him in the D-League. It was real humbling and he just told me he was blessed to have the opportunity to come play on a team like this. He has a kid now, he’s humbled himself, he’s calmed down a whole bunch and I think it’s good for him.”