Tucked away in the living room of a close friend’s house in Louisville, David Johnson watched the 2021 NBA Draft waiting for his name to be called. At 47th overall, he heard Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announce it would be the Toronto Raptors extending that privilege to him and what followed was a warm and extended embrace with his mother Sheritha Bousso that included tears of joy and cries of “You did it! You did it!”
All Johnson wanted was an opportunity, and with the Raptors having since committed to a two-way contract for the 20-year-old, he has every chance to make the most of a moment he’s wanted since middle school.
“It was a surreal feeling knowing that all the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve put into this game, up until this point, finally paid off,” Johnson said. “It’s what I’ve been looking forward to all my life regardless of whether it was the first pick or the sixtieth pick.”
As a child, Johnson admitted he was quite spoiled. His two sisters -- Ashley and Rayona -- are 14 and 11 years older, respectively, and so he was always treated by mom as the baby of the family. The only time he did house work was when mom was running her nail salon and his sisters would take charge. Johnson would spend most of the day outside when he could, either playing sports or riding his bike. When he was inside, playing with American muscle car toys and learning the latest technology was what piqued his interest most. From a young age, he became the resident IT expert for family and friends. It was all part of who Bousso wanted him to be: independent, kind, and generous.
“Since the day I was born, she always pushed me to be the best person possible,” Johnson said. “Never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to, everything she did tell me to do she knew would be beneficial to me.”
Basketball and football were the two sports that appealed most to Johnson and he thrived in both. At around Grade 4, though, he started to grow upwards rather than outwards and so basketball became a natural choice, especially with AAU programs clamouring for his talent. The sport became everything to him, and just how much it meant to him was put to the test after a significant injury in middle school.
Playing a school basketball game in Grade 8, Johnson received the ball on the run and saw an open lane. As his eyes locked in on the rim for a dunk and he planted his left foot to leap, his left knee buckled and his growth plate broke. The invincibility teens feel was quickly gone.
Johnson was home a lot for the next four months, with his mother and sisters tending to him. While he did everything to stay positive during his recovery, he had no idea what to expect physically once his cast was removed after six months. To keep his mind engaged, he would still go to practices and games of his AAU and school teams.
“It wasn’t the same, I was watching other guys develop and get better,” Johnson said. “I was thinking to myself, the easy thing to do would be to just not play anymore because it’s gonna be hard to catch up since you’re kinda behind.”
But deep down, Johnson knew he wanted to be remembered for something. Louisville didn’t have a professional sports team, so he consumed Louisville and Kentucky college sports and his main source of inspiration was seeing those kids fulfill their dreams. His mother wasn’t the type to force the issue and so the decision was always his to make. This was the moment Johnson knew he loved basketball more than anything, he was ready to fight for it.
Bousso saw the determination in her son and he was always on top of his rehab appointments, constantly finding ways to progressively push his body to the limit so he could accelerate the process.
“That period of overcoming, David was just so determined because he spent so much time being alone,” Bousso said of observing her son during that period. “Not being able to do anything, that desire to be in the game, that’s how he realized, ‘That’s where I want to be.’”
At Trinity High School, Johnson made first team All-State as both a junior and senior and was considered a four-star recruit. Staying close to home, he chose Louisville for his college career and after missing the start of his freshman season due to a shoulder injury, came on strong primarily in a bench role. Johnson takes pride in filling the stat sheet and his game logs consistently showed healthy returns across the board.
“I think everyone loves to be in the game and on the court,” Johnson said. “Learning how to do everything, defending is one thing that I’ve emphasized over the last few years, especially at the next level, that’s gonna keep you on the court. Being able to score, pass, rebound, all those things will keep you on the court. It’s hard for a coach to turn that down.”
Under the tutelage of Louisville head coach Chris Mack, Johnson learned the secret to real confidence. His first interactions left Johnson thinking this wasn’t a relationship that he wanted, but time showed it was certainly one he needed. When told as an 18 and 19-year-old that it wasn’t the coach’s job to instil confidence, Johnson wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But, over time, in understanding how Mack operated, he realized that the lesson being taught was that confidence wasn’t going to come as a result of the words being said, but rather the work that was being put in day-in, day-out.
“Your confidence starts to come from the hours that you put in the gym,” Johnson said. “The more you work on something, that’s where you become confident. I started to realize that as I got older. Over the last six months, I realized the things that I do are the things I work on, so, worked on new things and became an even better player.”
Along with the desire to have a well-rounded guard game, his physical attributes made him that much more appealing to the Raptors. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Johnson ranked second in standing reach (8-foot-8) among guards at the draft combine, second among guards in wingspan (6-foot-10.5), as well as fifth among guards in the three-quarter sprint.
Johnson is quickly getting acclimated to the team. He got his first taste of action against the Knicks and has quickly built a rapport with the players on the summer league roster. Among the core group he’s had a chance to meet, OG Anunoby has welcomed him with open arms while he’s quickly been impressed by head coach Nick Nurse.
“I see why he’s the highly touted coach that he is,” Johnson said. “There’s a reason behind everything that he’s telling you. He’s not gonna tell you anything without telling you what the outcome of it might be. When he’s saying stuff, he’s saying what’s gonna happen if you do it, what the reasoning behind it is and that really helps me as a player to understand.”
That’s the next step, understanding the pro game, understanding the grind, understanding exactly what it takes. Johnson believes he has not just the skills but the mindset to play at the highest level, and is excited by the prospect of an organization with one of the best developmental reputations in the league to tap into all of it.
“I’m really confident in my style of basketball, the way that I play,” Johnson said. “I feel like with me being a team-oriented guy first, my personal development is only going to get better. I’m focused on the team winning, individual things come from that.”