18 years after Joe Johnson might have started his career in Detroit, he’ll end it with the Pistons

EAST LANSING – Joe Johnson chose the Pistons to end his NBA career. The Pistons very nearly chose him to begin it.

With the No. 9 pick in 2001, Joe Dumars essentially came down to two players: Johnson or Rodney White. As a young general manager – it was Dumars’ second draft after he took Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves with the 14th pick of the historically weak 2000 crop – Dumars might have bent to the wave of hype that surrounded White. No less than The Logo, Jerry West, publicly declared White as having the highest ceiling of anyone in the 2001 draft class.

Dumars, years later, would say he went against his gut on draft night and vowed then to never do so again.

Johnson remembers his workout for the Pistons and never wondered why they chose as they did.

“It was me, Rodney White and Richard Jefferson,” Johnson recalled on Tuesday after the first training camp practice held on Michigan State’s practice court inside the Breslin Center. “It was just three of us working out for the Pistons and – just to be honest with you – I think Rodney was probably a year or two older than us. He was more developed, more mature. And on that day, he played his ass off. I’m not going to say he made a bad decision. I thought Rodney was a great talent. But you know how that goes.”

How it went was White lasted one year in Detroit before Dumars cut his losses and recouped a first-round draft pick from Denver. That draft pick later reaped dividends – and also would narrow the degrees of separation between the Pistons and Johnson.

The Pistons would later use that No. 1 pick to pry Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta at the trade deadline in 2004, the critical last link to the Goin’ to Work Pistons who would win the NBA title a few months later.

Atlanta used the pick on a high school kid at No. 17: Josh Smith. A year later, Johnson would be traded by Phoenix to Atlanta and become Smith’s teammate for seven years. In 2013, Smith signed with the Pistons, to bring it full circle.

And now, 14 years after White’s nondescript NBA career ended, Johnson is returning for an 18th season after a sabbatical year. He comes to camp on a partially guaranteed contract fighting for a roster spot, but it’s hard to envision a Pistons roster to start the season that doesn’t include Johnson given Dwane Casey’s praise for him after the first practice.

“I see his role as veteran leadership,” Casey said. “I see his role also as being a guy who can facilitate, close games. He still has it. A lot like Vince Carter is for Atlanta, he’s that veteran, experienced guy for us – especially closing games. And I love him. His temperament is great. Doesn’t get too high. He made a great play in practice today and didn’t celebrate. That is what I like about him.”

Johnson, 18 years belatedly, is wearing a Pistons uniform today largely because of Casey. It’s not tough to see why those two connected, two country folk with Southern no-nonsense sensibilities, Casey from Kentucky and Johnson from Arkansas. Johnson canceled workouts to accommodate a Pistons audition, then canceled the rest of them after sitting down with Casey.

“I think me and him were pretty much on the same page,” Johnson said. “Just telling me what he expected from me and telling me about some of the guys on the team, I think it made it a little more comfortable.”

Casey is tight with Mike Anderson, who was a longtime assistant at Arkansas at the time Johnson played there and later became Razorbacks head coach, and that gave them further common ground. Johnson went to Casey’s house and the two wound up watching the Dennis Rodman “30 for 30” on ESPN together.

“Felt right at home with my family,” Casey said. “He’s a basketball nut and I like that. He’s a historian of the game. He’s a student of the game. He’s a grown man and that sometimes helps a mature conversation.”

A big part of the Pistons future is invested in Sekou Doumbouya, born six months before Johnson was drafted. Casey envisions Johnson knocking down big shots or finding the open shooter to win a game, but another part of the appeal is the impact a player with Johnson’s perspective and aura can have on a piece of clay like Doumbouya.

“It’s a little weird,” Johnson grinned about having a teammate who was born mere months before his first NBA game. “Hey, at 38, it’s a lot that I just really enjoy these young guys because they work so hard. To have an 18-year-old over there and this is my 18th season” – and here Johnson lets out a sigh – “it’s a little different.”

In part because of those 18 years of wear but more because of the drift of the NBA game, Johnson is no longer the shooting guard or even the small forward where he spent the bulk of his playing days.

“I’m a power forward now,” he says. “I’ll play multiple positions, but for the most part, yeah, I’m a power forward. But it’s fun. I’m glad I’m still able to get around the game of basketball, play the game of basketball and enjoy these guys and take advantage of this opportunity that’s come before me. I never have any complaints. I come out and do what I’ve got to do and just enjoy the game.”

Eighteen years after Pistons fans might have gotten to enjoy the start of Joe Johnson’s career, they’ll get the chance to enjoy the end of it.