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Anthony Johnson is proof that you can go from the Deep South of the NBDL to the pinnacle of pro basketball
A 'Major' Step Puts Johnson in NBA Finals

by Jack Bogaczyk

The National Basketball Development League doesn’t need a roadmap of NBA cities to prove to people that you really can get there from here. Just tune in to the 2002 NBA Finals.

Anthony Johnson is proof that you can go from the Deep South of the NBDL to the pinnacle of pro basketball. The Nets’ backup point guard, who spent a month with the Mobile Revelers, put that time to good use and became the third of eight players to make the NBDL-to-NBA leap this season.

He’s the first former NBDL’er to make the NBA Finals, however, as part of the Nets’ rotation against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

“I went down there with the goal of getting back to the NBA, and I was able to reach that goal,” said the 6-foot-3 Johnson of his 15-game stint with the Revelers. “I stayed there four weeks and it served a purpose for me, and now I’m here with the Nets, and I’ve found my way into the rotation, and everything’s going pretty good.

Anthony Johnson, formerly of the Mobile Revelers, impressed the New Jersey Nets with his high flying exploits.
(Noren Trotman NBAE/Getty Images)

“I thought that for any player such as myself that was out of the NBA, the best way to go about getting into the league is playing in the NBDL. They have scouts there every night, and they have a lot of former players as coaches that run NBA systems. So, if you’re not familiar with the pro game, I think the NBDL is the place to be. For me, I just felt like I needed to go down there and prove I was an NBA player, and I felt things would work out.”

New Jersey is the fifth NBA team for Johnson, a former College of Charleston star who was Sacramento’s second-round pick (40th overall) in the 1997 NBA Draft. He was with Seattle in the preseason, but was released a week before the 2001-02 season opener. He joined the Revelers on December 7, and one month later, made the jump to a team that was headed for the Eastern Conference championship.

In 34 regular-season games with the Nets, Johnson averaged 10.8 minutes and 2.8 points per game as All-NBA choice Jason Kidd’s backup.

“Anthony has done a great job,” Nets coach Byron Scott said. “We had been looking for a backup, somebody who could give Jason a 10- to 12-minute rest per game, and we don’t lose a whole lot. I think A.J. has been able to come in and solidify that position for us.

“He’s got some experience at that position. He plays extremely hard, is extremely competitive and does all of the other little things for you. He runs the club extremely well, so he’s been the one guy that has really come in and done an excellent job, especially in the playoffs, for us.”

Johnson, who previously played for the Kings, Atlanta, Orlando and Cleveland, signed a pair of 10-day contracts with New Jersey before the Nets signed he Charleston, S.C., native for the remainder of the season. He averaged 11.9 points for Mobile during his NBDL stint, and the Revelers missed his leadership after his callup.

“When you lose your point guard, that’s really like unplugging your team, because he’s the guy wired into everybody and everybody’s wired into him,” Revelers coach Sam Vincent said. “When you take that out, obviously, you’re going to struggle and when we lost Anthony, we didn’t only lose productivity on the court, but we lost an emotional leader. Anthony is a tough guy, and the guys really bought into him.”

Johnson was one of three NBDL point guards called up the NBA, joining Jason Hart (Asheville to San Antonio) and Omar Cook (Fayetteville to Boston), and during his month with the Revelers, he tried to define for teammates who hadn’t been in the big time just how to get there.

“I kind of took it upon myself to show those guys that it’s not about just showing up when you’re expected and putting in the necessary time,” Johnson said. “It’s about getting in early, doing extra things to work on your game, to improve your shooting, your ball-handling. I tried to show up early and set a good example and share some of the responsibility with Sam, as far as being a leader. I think Sam really welcomed that and it took some pressure off him.”

Johnson said that backing up Kidd has been an education, because the Nets’ star has “patience and ability that make tough plays look easy. That rubs off on the rest of us. . . . He’s playing at an MVP level, so I know he’s going to be out on the court as much as possible. I try to use my practice time as my games. I try to focus as hard as I can to try to earn extra minutes and Coach Scott’s confidence.”