With their trade this past week, the Miami HEAT offered something of a vote of confidence in Tyler Johnson.
“You’ve have to give people room to really grow,” Pat Riley said after completing the deal. “We decided to give these young guys some room to grow and gain confidence, and they’re not just going to do it in the D-League.”
But Johnson, who had already spent months in the D-League last season at Sioux Falls, wasn’t looking for affirmation. He was already playing heavy, real, important minutes for a team with serious aspirations.
“I guess [the trade] did open up a few more minutes, but I always feel like I have confidence,” Johnson said. “I don’t necessarily need moves to be made or anything like that for me to be like, ‘Oh, wow they believe in me’. Anytime you’re out there on the court in the regular season, there’s some sort of belief that you can get something done.”
Erik Spoelstra, then, had already said all he needed to say about Johnson. Following Thursday’s win over Utah, Johnson’s fourth-quarter minutes over the past seven games look like this: 12, 12, 12, 7, 12, 7, 12.
“He made you watch him, he made you keep him even when we sent him to Sioux Falls, he made you acquire him again, he made you develop him and now he’s making you have to play him,” Spoelstra said.
Not just play him but, with Johnson joining Justise Winslow as an incredibly effective defensive pairing, leave him in. Game after game, it seems, Johnson and Winslow help one of Miami’s smaller lineups – often with the Chris Bosh-Josh McRoberts frontcourt – give the HEAT some breathing room towards the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter. Each time, Johnson would fight through pick-and-rolls, create turnovers, space the floor and generally just do things like…
Each time, Spoelstra could have easily patted him on the back, said ‘Great job’ and gone back to his veteran starters. Instead, Spoelstra put his faith in youth. So far, he’s been rewarded with a 6-3 record and a team with the best Defensive Rating in the league (93.5).
Johnson’s story is a familiar one – if they wrote it as a movie script it would get rejected for treading old territory – but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. He plays four years at Fresno State as a shooting guard, goes undrafted and signs with Miami in 2014 on a Summer League contract. He then plays well enough to earn a camp invite, but is waived just days before the season begins. He considers joining a team in Europe and trying to sign on for NBA Summer League the next season, but stays the course in part because of Spoelstra’s encouragement on a phone call.
Then, the D-League. Miami wants to develop Johnson, a shooting guard, into a point guard.
“I couldn’t throw a right-handed pass to save my life last year,” Johnson said.
The experiment lasts a few months until the pro-team finds itself dealing with injuries. Johnson gets called up, one 10-day contract turns into another, and less than a month later he’s on a multi-year deal.
Now, Miami is counting on Johnson to be a backup point. The early returns are encouraging, to say the least. Hitting 6 of his first 11 threes helps a team in search of shooting, but if Miami is going to stick with its smaller rotation the onus is on Johnson not just to finish plays with shooting and cutting (and dunking), but to create offense for everyone else.
In the final period against Utah, Johnson ran through many of the necessary permutations. First hitting Hassan Whiteside with a lob.
Then getting to the rim.
And finally, with the game on the line, a jumper.
Again, that’s a player who went completely undrafted two years ago running late-game pick-and-rolls for a team full of veterans attempting to make a playoff run.
“Tyler is awesome, man. He can play,” Bosh said. “He comes in and he works hard every day. Works on his weaknesses. He just goes out there, lays it on the line and competes. Nothing but good things can happen when you do that. He’s started from the bottom and worked his way up to playing a huge role for this team.
“You see guys who make it and stick around for a year, maybe a few months. He has the potential to be a guy who can make a huge, long career for himself.”
We’re still very early in that potentially long career, but things are trending exactly in the direction a team – one that takes great pride in player development – would want to see. Johnson earned his way on the court with defense like this…
And now he’s staying on the court because of his offensive production.
Sure, the story sounds fit for Disney, but there’s no magic fairy dust. Johnson is no overnight sensation, and it demeans his accomplishments to insinuate that he’s come out of nowhere. Nowhere, for Johnson, has been an empty, lonely gym, every day since last April, shooting by himself.
“Guys like him, it’s not a story,” Spoesltra said. “It’s every day. You can count on him to be first here, last to leave. Success often times isn’t an accident, and doesn’t happen over night. It’s a residual of priming the pump, priming the pump, priming the pump and eventually you get the water.”
Now, the water is flowing. If you’re reading this, if you clicked on a story with his name in the headline, you probably already know that. Everyone else, they’re still asking, ‘Wait, who is that guy?’
That, apparently, is just fine.
“I’m cool with that,” Johnson said. “We can keep it that way.”