The Fast Break: Johnson Thriving in Toronto
Posted Apr 7 2011 2:07PM
"The Fast Break" is a weekly NBA notebook column that features interviews, insight, international news and more. New every Thursday on NBA.com/fastbreak.
New York, N.Y. – It’s impossible to know where Amir Johnson would be today had he chosen a college career over the NBA. Every now and then though, even he wonders where he’d been in life. That decision, however, is one no 18-year-old will ever have to make again.
Shortly after Johnson was taken by the Detroit Pistons with the 56th pick of the 2005 Draft, the league tweaked its rules. Eligible players must now be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school. The new guidelines mean Johnson will forever be a part of NBA trivia as the last high school player selected in the annual event.
Today, Johnson is a 23-year-old, six-year veteran rather than a sophomore. He’s since left Detroit and found a home with the Toronto Raptors, who signed the 6-foot-9 center to a five-year deal last June. Johnson has rewarded the Raptors with a career year.
“I think I’m just getting better with every game, working hard in the off-season and showing a little bit of what I can do,” said Johnson, who is averaging 9.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 2010-11. “I have to get better every year.”
Much of Johnson’s success this year can be attributed to his increase in playing time. That is partly a product of Chris Bosh’s exit to the Miami Heat in the offseason. Johnson has started 54 of Toronto’s 78 games, playing an average of 25.7 minutes a night, all career bests.
“The more he plays and the longer he plays, and actually gets into the game-type situations, it’s going to be those type of things that will accelerate his development” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “I think he’s gotten better each year and that’s something we hope will continue to happen.”
When Johnson first came into the league at 18, every so often he would get starstruck being on the same floor as some of his heroes. While many kids his age had posters of Shaquille O’Neal on their bedroom wall, Johnson was a coach’s call from posting up against the future Hall of Famer. Any wide-eyed experiences went out the door though as soon as Johnson stepped on the court.
The Los Angeles native credits Detroit’s veterans for helping teach him the ins and outs of the league. In return, Johnson did whatever his teammates told him to do. That includes some customary rookie hazing.
“There was a lot of christening,” he said. “I had to pay for meals. I didn’t have the money, but had to find a way to do it.”
Johnson says he does more teaching than messing with the yearly freshman, some of whom are his age despite the difference in NBA experience. When asked to envision what playing at the University of Louisville, where he committed, would have been like, Johnson pauses for a second then says, “I think I would have been a helluva college player.”
Although the 21-57 Raptors haven’t had much on-court success this season, there are certainly positive signs for the future. Johnson is one of them, and his points up.
“He’s one of the best interior defenders in the NBA” Triano said. “He brings a great attitude and great energy every time he’s on the floor.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard Patrick Mills (Australia) was named his home country's top male basketball player for the second year in a row...San Antonio Spurs forward-center Tiago Splitter (Brazil) received starting minutes with Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands) out. In five starts, Splitter averaged 8.5 points with 6.5 rebounds...Sacramento Kings center Samuel Dalembert (Haiti) dropped 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds on Tuesday against a good Houston Rockets team...Steve Nash (Canada) had shorts trouble on Tuesday. On the court before the game, the Phoenix Suns guard realized he had on the wrong shorts and had to have his teammates circle around him so he could change on the court...Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford's (Dominican Republic) tip-in with 7.9 seconds left against the Boston Celtics was the difference maker in his team’s 88-83 win last Friday...Nicolas Batum (France) has had no trouble embracing his bench role after Marcus Camby’s return. Batum, who started 65 games this season, has 49 points and 10 blocks in three games since...Suns forward Mickael Pietrus (France) has missed six straight contests with a right quadriceps tendon strain. Coach Alvin Gentry lists him still as day-to-day...Plans were announced on Wednesday for New York Knicks center Ronny Turiaf (France) to host a celebrity basketball camp in his home island of Martinique from June 6-12...Raptors center Andrea Bargnani (Italy) returned from an ankle injury on April 5 against the Knicks. He played only eight minutes and was 0-for-4 from the field. Bargnani missed three of the team's last four games prior...Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro) played a career-high 30 minutes in place of Darko Milicic (Serbia) on Saturday. Pekovic finished with 14 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks…In other Milicic news, he’s raffling off his 2004 NBA Championship ring and an all-expenses paid trip to the 2011 NBA Finals to benefit his “Zorana & Darko Milicic Fund for Children with Life Threatening Diseases.”...Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov (Russia) had to be helped off the court on Tuesday with knee and ankle injuries. Mozgov will miss 10 days to two weeks...Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers confirmed this week that center Nenad Krstic (Serbia) will be coming off the bench for the rest of the regular season...New Jersey Nets guard Sasha Vujacic (Slovenia) put together his first double-double of the season on Tuesday against the Timberwolves. The 27-year-old had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his team's winning effort...Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (Spain) had one of his best performances of the season on Tuesday. Gasol had 14 points and 15 rebounds in the Grizzlies loss to the Clippers...Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova (Turkey) has missed over a month of the season dealing with a concussion he suffered on Feb. 25. Ilyasova has been taking part in team activities as of late and could return this weekend.
Fire & Ice
• Blake Griffin: The human highlight film took home March Rookie Player of the Month honors in the West. He led all freshmen in scoring (20.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.4). Griffin’s currently the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, 12 rebounds and three assist a night. This is his fifth RPOTM nod this season.
• Hall of Famers: Congratulations to Arvydas Sabonis, Chris Mullin, Dennis Rodman, Artis Gilmore, Teresa Edwards, Reece “Goose” Tatum, Tom “Satch” Sanders, Tex Winter, Herb Magee and Tara VanDerveer on being named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday.
• Washington Wizards: The Wizards haven’t gotten much love this season, but that’s about to change. Washington won three straight this past week and four of five. Granted, the victories came against all non-playoff teams, but it’s still an accomplishment worth applauding.
• Shaquille O’Neal: The big fella returned to the floor on Sunday after missing all but one game in February and March with a right foot injury. Just five minutes into that contest, however, O’Neal went down again. This time he hurt his right calf. Boston hopes to have him back by the start of the playoffs. They’ll need him in the paint – this is why the Kendrick Perkins trade hurts – if they want to be able to compete on that area of the floor.
• Los Angeles Lakers: The Denver Nuggets snapped the Lakers’ nine-game winning streak on Sunday. Los Angeles followed up that performance with losses to the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors. Those losses hurt the team’s chances of finishing as the West’s top team as they’re 4.5 games behind the Spurs with four games to play.
• Dallas Mavericks: Losers of four straight, the Mavericks have all but positioned themselves for the third spot in the West. The loss last Thursday to Los Angeles, a 110-82 thrashing, was the toughest to watch. They need a number of victories in their last four for a chance to catch L.A. for the two spot, while also holding off Oklahoma City, who is just one game back.
NBA StatsCube Cruncher
2 - The number of NBA clubs in the last 10 years to finish the regular season leading the league in both team and opponent scoring. The Warriors (111 ppg, 108.8 opg) were the last to do it in 2007-08. The 2004-05 Suns (110.4 ppg, 103.3 ppg) were the other. Golden State didn’t even make the playoffs that year, while Phoenix lost in the Western Conference Finals. This season, the New York Knicks (106.6 ppg, 105.8) ranks second and third in both categories. (StatsCube Index)