James Johnson is dealing with the slow start


Nov 21

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James Johnson, the Bulls top No. 1 draft pick last June, didn’t quite know what to expect about the NBA. Though he didn’t quite imagine this, playing less than almost every rookie in the league, averaging 3.3 points in 6.4 minutes per game and not getting into almost half the early season games.

He ranks 28th among rookies in scoring with eight second rounders or undrafted rookies playing more minutes and only three of the top 40 scoring rookies playing fewer minutes.

It hasn’t been easy, but if Johnson’s method of dealing with the uncertain start is any indication, Johnson will figure it out and become the player the Bulls hoped they were getting.

Johnson went back to his Wake Forest days and sought out teammates, like Bobby Hoekstra, who were walkons, guys who worked every practice with the team as hard as anyone but never played in games.

“I call the walk-ons and talk to them,” Johnson says. “They went hard for us in practice every time and they didn’t see five minutes of the game.

“Talking to them helps me out realizing if you are not on the court it doesn’t mean you didn’t help the team win,” said Johnson. “They said it was tough, but they were in a way different boat. I’m getting paid; this is my job. I don’t have to worry about schoolwork or nothing like that, and I’m still getting five or six minutes.

“They went 100 percent for us every day and all they got was a ‘great job’ on the scouting report or something like that,” recalled Johnson. “My job is my job and if I get called to work six minutes, I’m going to do that. They were cool kids and we all hung around together.

“I remember,” says Johnson, “I used to ask them how does it feel to not play. They’d say it sucks, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help us. It was easy for me to realize it’s bigger than me. I love winning. If I really love winning, I should have no problem doing my job.”

So Johnson does, which for now is mostly being ready, lately playing a few first half minutes and finishing up in blowouts. It’s not what fans expected of a player variously compared to Charles Barkley, Rodney Rodgers, Ron Artest and LeBron James for his size at 6-8 and about 255 and deft ball handling.

But Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro clearly hasn’t trusted Johnson to play him regularly, and Johnson has become last man on the bench even with the thin roster with Tyrus Thomas and Aaron Gray injured.

Though Del Negro said it was more that he primed Johnson to play small forward in training camp and didn’t use him with Luol Deng playing well and John Salmons shifting down to that position in the many small lineups that Del Negro employs.

“I’m trying to incorporate him now at four (power forward),” said Del Negro. “He’s getting more comfortable and he can help us there. He’s a good kid who is working hard and has a good attitude.”

The potential disappointment of Johnson’s slow start has been eased for the team by the surprising play of fellow rookie Taj Gibson, averaging seven points in just under 22 minutes per game and starting at power forward.

While the team felt Gibson would be a solid contributor, the hope—gamble, actually—was that a player with Johnson’s skills could become a star. You don’t often get a chance at a star at No. 16 in the draft, but the Bulls decided to take a chance as Johnson’s draft status fell with the poor finish by Wake Forest.

Rarely playing despite the team’s depth problems raised further questions about Johnson.

But Johnson remains positive, and it doesn’t seem as if attitude will be an issue.

“I’m trying to take everything as a positive,” says Johnson, who remains relentlessly upbeat and smiling. “In my whole career of basketball I’ve always started. But now I have to earn every minute, so it makes me want it more. At first it was tough coming off the bench. But that’s my role and that’s what I prepare for. Now I’m doing it and I feel more comfortable in the game for as much time as I’m in there.”

It was 10 minutes in Thursday’s loss to the Lakers, and though Johnson played in mop up time, he had his most productive game of his season with eight points and three of five shooting. It could lead to more time with the Bulls going into the high altitude game in Denver Saturday.

“This has not only helped me grow up as a basketball player, but as a person,” says Johnson. “I’m here to work hard in practice and cheer for my teammates. That’s what I want to do until my name is called and I play more.”

Here’s a look at the top rookies’ scoring thus far this season.

1. Brandon Jennings, Bucks  24.8
2. Tyreke Evans, Kings   17.1
3. Jonny Flynn, Wolves   13.8
4. Marcus Thornton, Hornets 10.6
5. Terrence Williams, Nets  10.5
6. Ty Lawson, Nuggets     9.7
7. Stephen Curry, Warriors   9.3
8. Tyler Hansbrough, Pacers  9.1
9. Toney Douglas, Knicks 8.8
10. Chase Budinger, Rockets  8.6

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