Former Bull James Johnson finds a home in the NBA


Dec 22

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There are many routes to a starting position in the NBA.

Obviously high level talent is one. But increasingly in the NBA, players are entering so young and with their games unexplored, their maturity level undeveloped. They enter a grown up world really without enough preparation.

The great ones adjust quickly; the great majority face the test that determines the rest of their career. James Johnson, the 16th pick in the first round by the Bulls in 2009, is one of the latter. When the Bulls played the Toronto Raptors Monday, Johnson was Toronto’s starting small forward, a long strange journey for a No. 1 draft pick, a college star who had to learn the hard way to adjust to the man’s world of the NBA or get out and perhaps a path for young players with a slow start.

Not everyone gets the chance, as Marquis Teague found out and Tony Snell is discovering now. But there are varied paths to success if you do not give up and discover what you can do for your team.

“I knew we had a great team and great guys in front of me who deserved to be in front of me and I wasn’t going to be able to take their spots,” said Johnson before Monday’s game. “I didn’t know how to handle that. I was happy we were winning, but as a young guy you want to be one of the reasons the team is successful. I wasn’t right away and it got to me.”

Johnson spent a few weeks in the D-league his rookie season with the Bulls headed behind Derrick Rose toward that great first round playoff series with the Boston Celtics. The following season Johnson was traded to Toronto for a draft pick, then moved to Sacramento, Atlanta and basically out of the NBA to the D-league again with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Johnson made it back with Memphis as a different player, a rugged defender. He signed with the Raptors for a second time last summer and looks like he’s finally found a place in the NBA.

It’s a process many young players endure who do not find a place early in their careers with a team. Some never do.

“I’m more confident as a player,” said Johnson. “The D-league helped me a lot with that. The first time I went I felt it gave me confidence and the second time I went it inspired me more because I was out of the league. It gave me more motivation to prove myself down there. And to be called up so quick I brought that with me and kept that confidence.

“It’s a business and sometimes you take stuff for granted,” admitted Johnson, averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in about 20 minutes per game as the team’s defensive stopper. “I took a lot for granted. To be out of the league, it really brought back the perspective of how fast it can go. I pray on it all the time. I know God is good. I knew he had a different path for me.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said it’s a difficult process for many first round picks, which is why Casey says he also has so much regard for a player like Jimmy Butler as well.

“I think (Johnson) matured,” said Casey. “He was a typical young kid who wanted more, more play calls, more touches like any other guy. Now he’s more prepared to handle his role, who he is, his role on our team. which is as a defensive player. He’s embraced that.

“I’ll never forget talking to James years before and saying, ‘You can be a Bruce Bowen.’ To a young kid being like Bruce Bowen means you don’t get any shots,” laughed Casey. “But it means if you accept and embrace that position you win rings. Any young kid doesn’t see himself as that role player, especially coming out of college where he sees himself as the man, gets touches and play calls. And then ask him to come to a young team and be a role player. That’s difficult for any young player to embrace.”

Casey says he especially enjoys having those sorts of players on his team, like Kyle Lowry, players rejected in several places and doubted like Johnson, Lowry and Butler.

“I’ve been in love with him, had a man crush on him for a while,” laughed Casey about Butler. “He’s a strong, physical kid; now he’s knocking down shots, handling the ball. He’s developed into an all around All-Star type player. He’s one of those kids you admire because he’s made a lot out of who he was coming out of college. I don’t think anyone projected him to be where he is now. My hat’s off to him the way he’s worked and developed his offensive skills. With that strength it’s unbelievable.”

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