Bulls Look at Not Just Another Guy Named Johnson


Jun 15

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I saw a guy Monday at the Bulls predraft workouts who has some real possibilities. I read on one draft analysis that he could be like Ryan Gomes. I see more of a poor man’s Charles Barkley.

It was James Johnson, the nearly 6-8 and 250-pound forward from Wake Forest.

“I don’t care if I go 21, 22, the end of the first round,” said Johnson. “I’ll be happy to get drafted and I’ll give all the teams that skipped me hell when I play them. That will keep me motivated. I love playing basketball. The way I look at it the money doesn’t matter. If I make $100,000, that’s $100,000 more than I had.”

My guess is Johnson doesn’t recall that comment after his rookie contract expires.

Johnson worked out for the Bulls at the Berto Center Monday along with North Carolina shooting guard Wayne Ellington, Rhode Island shooting guard Jimmy Baron and shooting guard Jerel McNeal via Hillcrest High School and Marquette.

Shooting guard is an interest for the Bulls because of the uncertainty regarding free agent Ben Gordon. More guards are expected for workouts Tuesday.

Though the biggest name and biggest guy Monday was Johnson, who is not expected to fall as far as the Bulls at No. 16. But then again.

He said he’s worked out for the Suns, Kings, Warriors, Pacers, Raptors and Timberwolves. Those teams are picking between Nos. 4 and 14.

But there’s so much uncertainty in this draft after the top seven or eight that anyone can drop into the late teens. Plus, Johnson isn’t exactly projected as a superstar. Yet. He considers himself a small forward, though we rarely see them at close to 260 pounds, which was what he played at in college. Plus there have been questions raised about so called “focus” or “motor,” which are terms the pros use when they don’t quite know what to make of a guy.

I heard from a coach in the ACC whose team played against Wake Forest and in talking about ACC players the coach singled out Johnson as someone to watch. “He’s a beast,” the coach said.

There’s been some talk of the Bulls going for a power forward, even an undersized one like Pitt’s DeJuan Blair, who is expected to be taken in the middle of the first round. There’s also mention among forwards of Louisville’s Earl Clark, who is more of a finesse type small forward.

Johnson could be a unique talent.He doesn’t have the explosiveness of Barkley, but he seems to have remarkable skills for a man his size, the ability to take a rebound coast to coast and finish with either hand. He reminds me on some level, though not with the shooting ability, of Toni Kukoc, who was a matchup nightmare for teams. Johnson seemingly could post smaller guys and take big guys outside and can make a shot, if not being great at threes. He played point guard in high school and reminds me some in that way of Scottie Pippen, who was a high school point guard before a late growth spurt.

Johnson’s Wake Forest team may have been the most talented in the country with him, point guard Jeff Teague, whom the Bulls will see Tuesday, and Al-Faroug Aminu, whom some say was the most talented. They apparently fell into a battle for attention which sunk the team.

Was it Johnson’s fault?

He was soft spoken Monday with sort of a tinny soprano voice like Elton Brand. I asked Johnson about it and he said: “We had guys who wanted to follow and some who didn’t and things fell apart. I don’t blame anyone on the team more than I blame myself. I didn’t get the job done.”

Maybe Johnson isn’t the classic physical four who can score the Bulls need and, uh oh, maybe another undersized guy. But he does seem to be a unique talent who has a chance to be a surprise in this draft. Sometimes in a draft like this look for a guy who can provide something special and fool the experts. Johnson may be that kind of guy we look back in five years and wonder how everyone missed.

Ellington is something of the Allan Houston type, a 6-5 shooter. He doesn’t put the ball on the floor much. But he has made big shots and has done so at big times and fits that recent Bulls draft profile of a mature guy from a great program. He could be available when the Bulls pick No. 26, but likely would be gone before then. I’d strongly doubt he’d be the Bulls choice at No. 16.

The Bulls also took a look at the local guy, McNeal. The Bulls don’t have a second round pick and that’s where most draft projections have McNeal because of his size—about 6-3—as a shooting guard. He’s not a great shooter like Ellington. But he is regarded as a tough guy and ferocious defender, and you never know at No. 26. Maybe the Bulls go for a guy like that who can come off the bench and play some point guard in case Gordon does leave. While McNeal fits somewhat better the emerging profile of a Bulls team that wants to focus more defensively.

“I feel like being a guy coming in playing four years in college I’m a solid fundamental player,” said McNeal. “I have good playmaking ability. I can make plays for others and get to the free throw line. But my biggest attribute coming in is getting guys on the defensive, making steals, deflections, getting after guys, pressuring guys, playing great help defense.”

I was wrong. Yes, again.

I thought Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody would stay in the NBA draft, but it was announced at Monday’s deadline he’s returning to Notre Dame. You can’t criticize players for staying in college, and Harangody was only a possible first round pick. Though when he worked out for Bulls last week he was said to be impressive. Also returning to school was Texas’ Damion James, a smallish power forward who looked like a possible low first round pick.

The Bulls Tuesday will look at guards Nick Calathes from Florida who is planning to play in Greece next season, Tasheed Carr of St. Joseph’s, David Holston of Chicago State, Eric Maynor of VCU, Bryan Mullins of Southern Illinois and Teague of Wake Forest.

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