WATCHING KEVIN JOHNSON ON
TOP OF HIS GAME is a little like watching a thermometer
shatter on a white tile floor. Much like the quicksilver escaping
from the glass, KJ is fluid motion - movement scattering in all
directions, but actually energy in a most organized form.
And if you've ever tried to capture mercury by
pinching it between your thumb and forefinger, you know what NBA
point guards must feel like standing at the top of the key waiting
for KJ to approach with the ball. He's almost impossible to pick up
without a lot of help.
After an injury-riddled 1992-93 campaign, Kevin
Johnson is one of the most feared offensive threats in the league
once again. With a first step quicker than a Ross Perot "you're not
listening!" and a jumper that is becoming more and more accurate
further and further from the hoop, the Suns' 6-1 point man can be
just plain unstoppable.
But this is not really news to most fans of the
NBA. KJ has always had the ability to be unstoppable when
Ah yes, that dreaded qualifier. Injuries have
become KJ's own personal albatross - in the playoffs during his
first few years with the Suns, here and there the past couple of
seasons and, more acutely, during the 1992-93 regular season. After
averaging over 20 points and 10 assists in three of his previous
four years (he just missed in 1991-92 with 19.7 ppg), KJ's numbers
"dipped" to 16.1 and 7.8 last season.
Johnson played in only 49 regular-season games
due to a number of freakish injuries. In fact, he started the year
on the injured reserve with a groin strain suffered attempting to
pick up 300-pound-plus rookie Oliver Miller
celebration of a successful preseason play. KJ missed 18 of the
first 22 recovering from that injury and an additional strained
After being kicked in the right calf in a loss
at Seattle in February, Johnson missed another seven games with a
severe bruise. Then, following a celebrated brawl with the New York
Knicks, he was suspended for two games in late March.
Finally, KJ missed five of the last 16 games -
the last two due to a knee injury suffered in a post-game victory
hug with Charles
following a last-second win at Portland. He also missed
the first game of the Suns' playoff series with the Los Angeles
All of these mishaps and misfortune might have
sunk a lesser player. But KJ showed a new weapon in his arsenal
over the last few months of the season and during the Suns' long
playoff drive - toughness.
Maybe it began with the Knick-down-drag-out
brawl at the America West Arena on March 23, 1993 - where KJ laid
out an unsuspecting Doc Rivers with a little taste of New York
medicine. After serving his two-game suspension, he returned to
average 24.6 points, 9.2 assists and 1.43 steals in his next eight
games - while shooting at a .553 (57-for-103) clip from the field.
Stats that were outstanding, even for KJ.
After once again battling injuries toward the
end of the season, KJ returned to the playoffs to pick up where he
The apex of his postseason performance - an NBA
record 62-minute effort in the triple-OT Game 3 of the NBA Finals
at Chicago - became a testament to his toughness. KJ played all but
the final minute of the classic battle finally won by the Suns
"I kept waiting for him to tell me when he got
tired," coach Paul Westphal said after the game.
The guard with the lightning first step had
proven to the basketball world that, along with speed, he possessed
a fair amount of intestinal fortitude, as well. Of course, anyone
who drives the lane as KJ does, challenging oak trees with legs to
knock him down, obviously never lacked in the guts
But even though - "when healthy" - KJ had played
as well as anyone in the NBA, the 1992-93 season was termed a
disappointing one for the former first-round pick out of the
University of California. Yes, his numbers were down, but other
aspects of his game were up - especially his defense. Can anyone
forget his work on
during that marathon Game 3?
In any case, fairly or not, KJ's name had begun
to fall from mention when the discussion turned to the top point
guards in the NBA. Well, guess what he's back.
During the first month of the 1993-94 campaign,
KJ averaged 23.6 points and 10.1 assists. The toughness he showed
last year is manifesting itself in an aggression toward the hoop
this season that borders on voluntary rim-slaughter.
"I think Kevin is playing as well as anybody in
the league right now," said Cleveland point guard Mark Price
after KJ ripped
the Cavs for 26 points on November 20. "He seems healthy and
anytime he's healthy, he's always been one of the top point guards
in the league."
Yes, once again, KJ is healthy and perhaps
playing the finest ball of his career. "Kevin's playing great,"
said teammate Danny Ainge. "I don't know if it's his best - he
played great last year in stretches, too, he just wasn't as
For the first time in three seasons, KJ started
the year completely injury-free and, for the first time since the
arrival of Charles Barkley, KJ has started to assert himself more
consistently on the offensive end.
Yes, Barkley's arrival did have an effect on KJ
- how could it not? After years of being the first or second option
on offense, Johnson was faced with adjusting his game to include
Barkley, who, of course, would almost always be Option 1.
But even though he seemed to struggle initially
with this adjustment, like a true pro, he learned from the
"My role changed significantly last year," KJ
said. "The addition of Charles made me a more complete player
because he attracts so much attention it allows me to do other
things - play defense, hit the open jumper, pick my spots."
So far in 1993-94, his spot has seemed to be
anytime he has trotted onto the court. Hitting jumpers, driving
past defenders for dunks, penetrating and dishing off to open
teammates - Johnson's aggressiveness on offense is a welcome sight
to the Suns.
"We want him to score and be aggressive on
offense," Westphal said. "With him hitting, it's hard to know which
direction we are going to be coming from."
"Kevin's our leader," Ainge said. "When his
defense is great and he puts up numbers, he makes it very difficult
for other teams to stop us. He's been very aggressive offensively
and that makes us better."
While driving the lane is his bread and butter,
KJ has been more effective than ever in using the outside jumper to
set up his penetration. With healthy legs under him, the jumper has
been falling more often than a cow on skates.
"The one thing he has improved a lot is his jump
shooting," said Price, a former teammate of Johnson's when KJ was a
rookie fighting for playing time in Cleveland. "He's pretty
accurate from 15 to 18 feet and that's something he wasn't as good
at before. When he's hitting that shot, guys have to play him a
little closer and then he can use his quickness. He's got a lot of
weapons to use."
Weapons that might be put to good use in a
detente-era version of global roundball war - the World Basketball
Championships. The new Dream Team II - which includes Price, along
with Suns guard Dan
, the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins
- will be representing the United States in the 1994
World Basketball Championships in Toronto. Plus, the same team is
expected to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Ten of the 12 roster spots have already been
filled, with the final two names to be chosen this spring. But,
with a knee injury to the Warriors' Tim Hardaway
threatening his ability to participate this summer, three spaces
seem to be available on the squad. Will KJ be tabbed to take one of
"I think he should be considered," Price said.
"I think he should have been considered in the first place. There's
a lot of guys that could be picked for the team that you couldn't
go wrong with - Kevin is definitely one of those guys. Who knows,
maybe we'll be playing as teammates again this summer."
Although he admits being more than a little bit
biased, Westphal believes that if a replacement is needed for
Hardaway, KJ is the guy.
"I think he's the best point guard in basketball
right now. If I had to pick a point guard, I'm glad we have the one
While hoping he gets the chance to join Dream
Team II, Johnson realizes that he only has so much control over the
"It would certainly be an honor to represent the
country in the World Championship and the Olympics, those things
are beyond my control," KJ said.
Well, maybe but maybe not.
If KJ continues to play as he has through the
first month of the season, the selection committee for the Dream
Team would be hard pressed to pass him up.
"It's tough to say this is the best I have seen
him play," said Cleveland head coach Mike Fratello after the
November 20 game. "Watching him today, you just start to draw up
new levels of greatness for him."
And it's new levels of greatness for which Kevin
Johnson has now set his sights upon while he's darting and dancing,
fighting and flowing from the top of the key to the backboard -
rising to new levels like quicksilver in the Arizona sun.
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