Johnson Hoping to Resemble an NBA Player

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, it wouldn't be difficult to spill a couple thousand on Alize Johnson. The Pacers' second-round draft pick looks so much different than he did not all that long ago, but he looks so much like a famous NBA player.

Let's start with Jimmy Butler, the Minnesota Timberwolves' All-Star forward. The facial similarity he and Johnson share is uncanny, and a topic frequently brought up to Johnson. He doesn't mind.

After all, there are far worse people for an aspiring player to resemble, but Johnson's challenge is to establish his own identity.

"It's fine for right now, but I want everybody to know me as Alize," he said Tuesday following the Summer League team workout at St. Vincent Center.

Alize Johnson, Jimmy Butler

Johnson (right) says people tell him all the time he looks like NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler (left). Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

The name is pronounced AL-ih-zay, by the way. It's appropriately as unique as his story, an invention of his mother's. "My mom saw it in a magazine when she was getting her hair done," he said. "I get jokes about it all the time."

That's why he doesn't mind the jokes about Butler so much. He's been getting teased about one thing or another for a while now, and he's in no position to complain about much of anything as the 50th pick in the draft from a mid-major who played two seasons at a junior college. It's his place to be humble and hungry, not offended.

The Butler comparison is difficult to ignore, though.

"I get that a lot," he said. "I went to the (pre-draft combine in Chicago). Everyone knows he played for Chicago, so when I went out there everyone was saying, 'What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Minnesota.' I heard a lot of jokes about that."

Johnson has spent time with Butler, who is six years older, about an inch shorter and at least 30 muscular pounds heavier. He acknowledges it felt "a little weird" to be with someone who nearly looked like a mirror image, but they didn't dwell on the topic.

"Just talking about the process and getting better every day," Johnson said.

Alize Johnson

Pictured: Alize Johnson in 2012 (left) and 2018 (right). Photo Credit: Alize Johnson/@Pacers

The current process for Johnson is to fulfill the potential indicated by his varied skill set. And that takes us to the other photo, the one shown above that appears on his Facebook page. It was taken in 2012, not all that long ago, really, when he was a 16-year-old kid. He might resemble Butler now, but he doesn't resemble himself at that stage of his life.

He was a guard then, and dutifully working on his ballhandling skills. He had been a 5-foot-9 entering St. John Neumann High School in Williamsport, Pa., so he assumed he would remain a backcourt player although his mother is 5-11 and his father goes about 6-5. He was good enough to play on the varsity in that capacity as a freshman, but a growth spurt changed everything. He had shot up to 6-5 by his senior year. A wing player then, he led his team to a 30-1 record and earned the state's Mr. Basketball honors.

The story goes that his sudden and unexpected upward mobility surprised even friends and family members. His mother, Chanelle, told a Kansas City newspaper reporter she once mistook him for a burglar sleeping in her son's bed. She nervously pulled the covers back, only to hear him say, "Mom, it's me."

Johnson, though, took the growth in stride.

"I didn't really notice it," he said. "I was just growing and playing."

Johnson drew interest from lower-level Division I schools such as St. Peters in New Jersey, St. Francis and Bucknell, but his lack of academic growth led him to junior college instead. Not just any junior college, but the Frank Phillips Community College in Borger, Texas. It's an isolated place on the panhandle, a town of about 13,000 people an hour east of Amarillo, which as the 14th largest city in Texas isn't exactly Manhattan itself.

Johnson grew there, another four inches up and another 20 pounds out, and was found by Missouri State coach Paul Lusk, a former Purdue assistant under Matt Painter. He declared for the draft following his junior season, when he averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 points, but the Celtics were the only team to offer a workout. He went back to school and averaged 15 points and 11.6 rebounds.

In that regard he bears an uncanny resemblance to a former Pacers standout. Dale Davis, the franchise's all-time leading rebounder, averaged 12.1 rebounds as a senior at Clemson while playing 3 1/2 more minutes per game than Johnson played last season.

Johnson obviously wasn't focused on rebounding as a high school guard, but quickly realized it would have to be his calling card as a wing player.

"I have to do things different," he said. "Being the underdog I have to show some things that I can do consistently. Rebounding is effort. I'm all about hard work and getting into the gyms. Not really being the most athletic person, but just having the grit to go up there every time and get it is something that's still in my blood. I have siblings back home and a family rooting for me, so when I'm up there grabbing rebounds, that's what I'm doing it for."

He's shown that in his four Summer League practices so far, including one instance on Tuesday when he grabbed three or four offensive rebounds on one sequence of possessions, according to observers. He isn't a great jumper, but has instincts, timing, strong hands and willingness.

Alize had a really good day today," Summer League coach Steve Gansey said.

"He has an unbelievable motor. He just has a knack for the ball."

Thanks to his late growth spurt, he also has a knack for handling and passing the ball. He showed those skills in his pre-draft workouts and has continued to show them in Summer League practices. Gansey has told his players to sprint upcourt when Johnson grabs a rebound and let him bring up the ball. He also says Johnson can thrive in a spread offense, taking defenders off the dribble.

Johnson's scoring abilities remain in doubt. He hit 28 percent of his 3-pointers his last season at Missouri State, but 39 percent as a junior. He hit 76 percent of his foul shots, which is encouraging, but his perimeter shot looks a bit awkward with its low release point. He says he's "absolutely" improved since his college season ended and is putting up as many as 500 shots before practice.

It will be a work in progress for him. Then again, if he was a great shooter he certainly wouldn't have been available to the Pacers with the 50th pick. He's regarded by some as a Draft Day steal, but Summer League will provide the best opportunity yet for the Pacers to see whether he looks like a bona-fide NBA player.

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