It’d be nice to say that this is about to be Amir Johnson’s year. He’s due for it. Johnson has toughed it out through three losing seasons and more nagging injuries than we’ll ever know about as a Toronto Raptor and has impressed his coaches with his conditioning and his shooting since the beginning of training camp. At 25 years old heading into his eighth NBA season, Johnson is in a good place, confident and ready to make an increased impact on a team expecting across-the-board improvement.
The problem is that you can say the same about three other guys in the frontcourt.
You can say the same for plenty of other guys around the league, actually — if you’re a big in Utah or Milwaukee, a wing in Boston or just about anyone in Houston, you have to fully commit to your summer routine aware of the fact that it might not translate to the bigger role you’re working toward.
In Toronto, power forward Andrea Bargnani is guaranteed over 30 minutes a game, as head coach Dwane Casey believes he should be an All-Star this season. The way Bargnani played last season before he strained his left calf and missed 35 games, that goal is not just preseason prattle.
Then you have the lovable Lithuanian, rookie Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are entirely enamored, seeing him as their future at the center position. There’s also third-year power forward Ed Davis, a popular subject of conversation in Toronto. After being denied a proper training camp due to an ill-timed injury in his first year and that lousy lockout in his second, he has drawn rave reviews for his work in the offseason and his reworked jumper. Even if plodding center Aaron Gray is removed from the rotation and combo forward Linas Kleiza sees time only on the wing, Johnson will face an uphill battle just to maintain the 24 minutes per game he averaged in 2011-2012.
The good thing is that Johnson has been in similar situations.
Johnson entered the league out of Westchester High School in 2005, joining a Detroit Pistons team that had been to the Finals for two straight seasons. Veterans Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Dale Davis were ahead of him in the rotation, as were youngsters Darko Milicic and Jason Maxiell. In his second season, Ben Wallace and Milicic departed but Chris Webber and Nazr Mohammed arrived and the young Johnson was left on the outside again, He played only 11 games for Detroit in his first two years, spending significant time starring in the D-League.
“I actually asked to be in the D-League when I was in Detroit,” Johnson said, before praising then-Fayetteville coach Mo McHone and point guard Mateen Cleaves for helping him along. “I’d been practicing so hard and working but I wasn’t seeing the floor, so I actually asked to go again and get some playing time. It was good for me to get a little bit of experience.”
In his third season, Johnson broke into the Pistons rotation, even with Rasheed Wallace, McDyess, Mohammed and Maxiell still around. In year four, he beat out McDyess, who bought Johnson suits when he was still a rookie living with his mom, for a starting spot on opening day. He’d still only play 15 minutes per game, in and out of the starting lineup, but all along as a Piston he played a million miles per hour, scoring efficiently and blocking shots around the basket. For this reason, Johnson doesn’t sound worried about what will happen this season in Toronto.
“It is a packed rotation, but you just gotta be ready when the coach calls your name on the court. You gotta be ready to play. And that’s what I learned in Detroit, man. Whenever the coach calls your name, you gotta be ready to be in there. I played behind so many bigs, so whenever I got in I made sure I played hard and made sure I made a statement on the court.”
The difference now is that Johnson is approaching his prime, heading into the third year of a five-year, $30 million deal. He’s in a situation he’s more than comfortable with, cracking jokes in the locker room and coming up with contests for his Twitter followers. On the city he loves: “I think they have a zombie walk coming up. I want to check that.” On the head coach he respects: “He doesn’t bullshit you. He tells it like it is. That’s the kind of coach you want.” Johnson knows how to prepare properly to provide what’s expected of him, which wasn’t always the case. “At first when I came into the league, I didn’t know that about watching film and keeping the body healthy,” he said. “Pretty much that’s the whole NBA, man.”
Johnson had no shortage of examples to follow, learning how to dress from McDyess, how to approach the weight room from Ben Wallace and where to be on the court from Chauncey Billups. Talks with Lindsey Hunter and Allen Iverson helped him understand the business side of the league. “They pretty much took me under their wing, they never let me go wrong,” he said. “They always told me the right things to do and the right stuff on and off the court. As soon as I left Detroit, it was kind of like I’m on my own now. You grow up, now you gotta be on your new team, your own thing, just take what you learned from that Detroit team and let’s see. I feel like I’m on my own and I’m still learning.”
Johnson expanded his range after arriving in Toronto, working with former Raptors and now-Sacramento Kings assistant coach Alex English, the Hall of Famer whose name adorned the back of Johnson’s first throwback jersey. He also became, in his words, a “health freak” and, when he wasn’t traveling to places like the Dominican Republic, Australia and Hawaii this past summer, he was in his hometown of Los Angeles working on his conditioning and preparing for the season, often with assistant coach Eric Hughes. Last season his free throw and mid-to-long range shooting percentages dipped, which can be partially attributed to working his way back from foot surgery and only missing two games despite nagging ankle and back ailments that he preferred not to acknowledge at the time. “You just slap some tape, some spit on it and keep going,” Johnson said. “The way I put it, man, you keep on going until you can’t go no more. That’s how I do it.” He added that he felt fully healthy and hoped to stay that way. He then reached down to the court and knocked on the wood floor.
The idea is for this year to be Johnson’s best, and even if he doesn’t get the minutes to break out individually, this can happen with greater team success. “I think everybody has a good focus this year,” Johnson said. “Everybody is on the same page, we definitely know what we want to do. We have our goals, we just gotta go out and do it. I said we’re tired of talking, man. We gotta go out there and take every game serious, no matter if it’s preseason or if we’re practicing against each other.”
Players caught in positional jams can only do so much to affect their and their teams’ fortunes. Part of being a veteran, even a 25-year-old one, is understanding how to handle that. No matter Johnson’s place in the rotation, you can expect him to play as if it’s the Year of Amir.