Johnson Has NBA Name, Hoping to Add a Game
He’s a versatile 6-foot-9 player from the state of Michigan who feeds off the fortitude and dedication of his mother. So why shouldn’t he be named Jaylen? Or Jalen, or any of the other variations of the name Jalen Rose has made famous?
Jaylen Johnson’s dream of NBA employment resumes on Saturday when the Pacers’ entry opens Summer League play in Las Vegas. He’s earmarked for the starting lineup along with fellow free agent DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and three players with Pacers experience - Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner and Alize Johnson.
For a player working his way up from a humble platform, starting is at least a start.
“I just want to show everybody my work ethic, and go out there and give it my all,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be starting with those type of players. I want to be on the court with those players one day.”
He means in the NBA, which of course is the goal of all the players in Las Vegas who don’t already have a league contract. Johnson qualifies as a longshot, but has some qualities that provide hope for beating the odds.
Most of them come from his mother, Janetta.
She was a standout player at Wisconsin, a 6-foot-4 center who set a Big Ten record by blocking 130 shots in the 1988-89 season. She also led the team in scoring and rebounding to earn all-conference honors and the team’s Most Valuable Player award.
She became ineligible her senior season because some of her junior college credits had not transferred and she was taking an excessive course load. She didn’t drop out of school, though. She worked as a waitress at a Perkins restaurant to support herself while earning her degree and went on to play four seasons professionally in Portugal.
She had lived in Ann Arbor while growing up, so the line to Fab Five member Jalen Rose isn’t difficult to trace.
“She thought ‘Jaylen’ was a baller name,” Jaylen says.
She also wanted him to reflect her name, along with her baller game. Janetta’s nickname as a player was “Big J,” and she was determined he follow her example in as many ways as possible.
He tries. Jaylen’s father has not been part of his life, so Janetta did the work of both parents. She has sold cars and worked as a broker for mortgages and real estate to support him and his younger brother, Lawrence. She also has coached. She helped with Jaylen’s AAU teams from third through ninth grade, helped coach a boys team in Ypsilanti and, after moving to Louisville with Jaylen after he accepted Rick Pitino’s scholarship offer, took over a high school girls program.
“She’s a big influence,” Jaylen says. “I never really had a father in my house. She was like a mother-father. She put the ball in my hands. She always kept that fire in me. Everybody said because I just had a mom, that I needed a man in my life, this and that, but I feel like my Mom did a great job for the situation we were in. She was my backbone. She was always there for me.
“I want to make it for me for sure, but I’ve seen my mom struggle. Getting me to AAU games, scraping up money … I just want to give back to her and show her that her work was never in vain. She prayed and prayed when I was in her stomach that I was going to be a baller, and it came to pass.”
Growing up, Jaylen went one-on-one with his mother in the back yard, at least until he became too large for her to handle. She instilled her love for the game in those matchups.
“I love basketball more than a girl should,” she once told the Courier-Journal in Louisville. “I could live in the gym.”
She also passed along her toughness, both physically and verbally. She set an example in their personal matchups. And when she wanted him to rebound better she would shout, “Go get the garbage!”
Garbage collection has always been the strength of Jaylen’s game, which is currently under expansion. He has the mentality for it and weighs 230 pounds – 20 more than Jalen Rose did back in his day. He averaged 5.8 rebounds and 11.5 points in his junior season at Louisville while averaging just 20.5 minutes. After declaring for the NBA draft following that season – and not getting drafted - he averaged 7.5 rebounds for the G League Windy City Bulls.
Last season, having been traded to the Iowa Wolves, for whom he played a partial season, his statistical totals declined along with his playing time (16.4 minutes). His shooting percentages climbed, though, including 39 percent accuracy on his three-point shots. Perimeter shooting will be vital to his hope of finding a path to the NBA as an adjunct to his rebounding.
He has a smooth stroke and shoots well in post-practice settings, but will need to show something in the games in Las Vegas to take his place in the world of basketball Jaylens and Jalens.
“He’s really improved,” said Steve Gansey, who coached against Johnson in the G League last season and will coach him in Las Vegas. “He’s got a skill set. He can stretch it from outside, he can handle it a little bit. I like bigs like Jaylen who can be a threat inside and out.”
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