Say you're an eager and promising but still unproven rookie in the NBA? Would you prefer (1) playing a lot of minutes and starring for the G League affiliate, or (2) hanging with, practicing with, and getting random scraps of minutes with the NBA team?
Alize Johnson knows he's not at liberty to choose, but he's fine with (3) all of the above.
"They both have their purpose," he says. "Playing up there, learning here."
"Up there" is Fort Wayne, where the 6-foot-9 forward has become a dominant player for the Mad Ants. He's averaged 19.4 points in 18 games while shooting 52 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 81.5 percent from the foul line. He's also averaged 14.2 rebounds, third-best in the G League, and 3.2 assists, a significant number for his position.
"Here" is Indianapolis, where he's riding the end of the bench for the Pacers. He's played in just seven games for a total of 24 minutes and scored six points. Three of those came in the final minute of Tuesday's blowout victory over Phoenix, on a 3-pointer from the left corner.
Johnson is representative of the Pacers' intriguing underclass, which also includes fellow second-round draft picks Edmond Sumner and Ike Anigbogu and, to a lesser degree the more established Aaron Holiday and TJ Leaf. They're all promising, they've all have shown glimpses of legitimate NBA talent, but none of them have yet had the opportunity to prove themselves against the test of time. Davon Reed, who along with Sumner is under a two-way contract with the Pacers, also fits the category. He's averaged 14.4 points in 21 games with the Mad Ants, but so far ranks below the others in the pecking order.
The Pacers originally planned to give their most recent first-round draft picks, Holiday and Leaf, some playing time in Fort Wayne to keep them sharp. They have played well in short bursts with their NBA minutes, however, and the solid play of Johnson, Sumner and Anigbogu in Fort Wayne probably has helped keep them both in Indianapolis. Those three appear to deserve all the development time they can get, so why dilute it by adding more young players to the mix in Fort Wayne?
Johnson, Sumner and Anigbogu have been leaving rubber on I-69 throughout the season, routinely going back and forth between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. That won't change this season unless injuries require their services for the Pacers on a regular basis, but none of them have shown hints of frustration with their split identities.
Johnson lives in an apartment in Fort Wayne and rents a house in Indianapolis. He's learned to be comfortable in both settings.
"I'm just going with the flow," he said. "Wherever the coaching staff wants me to be …"
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
Johnson has impressed Pacers coaches and teammates alike with his motor and versatility. A 5-9 point guard as a freshman in high school, he grew to 6-9 by his senior year. That enabled him to develop ballhandling and passing skills, but his best asset remains rebounding.
Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said during training camp Johnson had "the best motor I've seen in the last 10 years," and Johnson's play in Fort Wayne has supported the claim. He's collected 20 or more rebounds twice for the Mad Ants.
"He's got a knack for the ball," Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey told The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne earlier this season. "You can't teach that. He knows where to be, where that ball is. It's his motor. That's what makes him get to those balls. Guys are boxing him out and he's swimming guys, he's jabbing and going the other way, and that takes a lot of energy."
His primary weakness coming out of the draft was shooting, but he's adjusted his form by not jumping as high and nudged his 3-point percentage beyond 40. The one he made against the Suns offered a sliver of evidence of his improvement to the public but he's provided further proof with the Mad Ants, such as when he hit 4-of-7 3-pointers in a 31-point outing in the G League Showcase in Las Vegas.
"It seems like A.J. has added something new to his game every time we see him," Collison said. "He's shooting the ball at a really high clip right now. He seems to be more confident. He has a good head on his shoulders. He's a workhorse. He plays hard in practice and when he gets his chance in the game he doesn't let up."
There's a caveat to consider, however. Plenty of players have excelled in the G League but couldn't stick in the NBA, just as a lot of players have hit .300 in Triple-A baseball but never caught on at the Major League level. Thad Young, who has to deal with Johnson's relentless energy occasionally in practice scrimmages, believes rebounding can be Johnson's ticket to finding a stable home in the NBA.
"He has a strong niche," Young said. "One of the biggest things about him is he brings that toughness to the game. He's going to try to get every single rebound. If he can bring that same attitude every single night he can make a great living in this league."
Young compares Johnson to Reggie Evans, another 6-8 forward who played 13 seasons in the NBA almost solely because of his rebounding talents. Johnson, though, appears to have the added skills of knocking down a perimeter shot now and then. Evans hit just 1-of-11 3-pointers in his NBA career.
"Rebound the basketball, keep guys in front of him and get a few buckets here and there, he'll definitely be a guy who can stay in this league a long time," Young said.
If Johnson reminds Young of Evans, he reminds nearly everyone of Philadelphia's All-Star forward Jimmy Butler. The facial resemblance is striking and the builds are similar. Johnson hears about it all the time, including from his Pacers' teammates. Bojan Bogdanovic often calls him "Jimmy."
"We definitely mess with him a little bit," Young said.
Johnson doesn't care. He's in no position to complain about NBA teammates who treat him well – who, in fact, stood and cheered when he hit that 3-pointers against the Suns - just as he's in no position to complain about NBA playing time. The hard road separating Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, which takes him from scrub to star and back, is a reminder of that.
"I'm my own person," he said. "Sooner or later everybody will notice that. I just want to be part of this organization for a long time."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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