Walker Russell Jr. expects the stark reality of the NBA Development League to hit JaJuan Johnson as it does every former NBA player who ends up working for second chance.
“The only thing I'd tell him is this is really going to humble him,” Russell said. “We're not going to be in jets. We're not in the Ritz anymore. It's a humbling experience, but it'll help him get back to where he needs to be.”
Russell would say enjoy the ride, but as a man who finally got his break last year – moving from the Mad Ants to the Detroit Pistons before returning to Fort Wayne again this fall – he knows “enjoy” would be pushing it.
“Once you've had that five-star meal,” Russell said, “you definitely don't want to go back to McDonald's.”
Johnson, the former Purdue University standout who spent last season with the Boston Celtics, was hit hard when he was traded to the Houston Rockets, then released and found no other NBA takers for his considerable 6-foot-10 talents.
Eschewing opportunities to go overseas, Johnson put his name into the D-League pool and was the No.1 pick by the Mad Ants in this month's draft.
Johnson could whine. He could moan. He could pout. But where would that get him? He'd still be in Fort Wayne. He'd still be trying to regain the form that made him the Big Ten Player of the Year as senior.
Johnson's attitude has been nothing but positive as he prepares for his D-League debut with the Mad Ants in the season-opener against Erie at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Memorial Coliseum.
“I was obviously disappointed, but these are the cards I was dealt,” Johnson said. “I can only control the controllable, and that's how I work and what I do from here on out. This is where I'm at now, and I'm going to do my best to help the team win games and make myself a better player.”
Mad Ants coach Duane Ticknor gushes about Johnson's approach to being a strong teammate.
Johnson played in 36 games with the Celtics last season, averaging 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.
The numbers were modest, and his playing time did not necessarily enable growth in his game, Ticknor said.
Ticknor said he believes playing in the D-League can help Johnson regain his basketball identity.
“He really didn't get a lot of quality minutes (with the Celtics),” Ticknor said. “So he hasn't played in a year and a half, basically. He needs to get out here and play and have some fun and go back to being the JJ that everybody knows and that he remembers. He needs a little bit of success. He needs to get that confidence back a little bit.”
Johnson's ability to run the court and score from a variety of spots has always been a strong suit. Ticknor likes his teams to push the ball, so that's good for him. On the defensive end, Johnson blocks and alters shots and needs to work on defending other big men at the D-League level.
“He needs to use his athleticism to his advantage,” Ticknor said. “There aren't many guys as long and athletic as he is, and if he doesn't use it the right way, he might as well be 6-4. He needs to use that athleticism.”
Johnson said he leaned on his mother and other family members when he was released from the Rockets. Having been drafted, traded and released, he's covered the gamut of highs and lows in professional basketball in one short year.
After choosing to enter the D-League, Johnson was encouraged about the possibility of playing in Fort Wayne because of its proximity to his home, and because of the chance to play for Ticknor. One of Johnson's former teammates with the Celtics, 6-11 Greg Stiemsma, played for Ticknor with the Sioux Falls Skyforce before earning his NBA break.
“I talked with Greg about what (Ticknor) helped Greg do,” Johnson said. “I think he's a good coach and he lets you play your game as long as you get things done the right way.”
Johnson took a major pay cut, of course, in moving down to the D-League.
But the opportunity to get on the floor, play regularly, and show scouts what he can do again is a motivating force.
“Every team has scorers,” Johnson said. “I have to show I can do other things – rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots. They want to see how hard you work, and I have to find a way to showcase that here.”
Johnson could pout about his circumstances, but he chooses the opposite, hoping it's his best route back to the league.
“He's been humbled a little bit, but I think he's willing to do what it takes to get back to the next level,” Ticknor said. “He has that fire in his belly to prove people wrong.”
If all goes right, Johnson can go back to dining on those five-star meals in the NBA world once again.
Pacers send players to Ants
The Indiana Pacers have decided to assign forward Miles Plumlee and guard Orlando Johnson to the Mad Ants for this weekend, and they will play in the season opener tonight at Memorial Coliseum.
This marks the first time the Pacers have sent players to Fort Wayne. In fact, the Pacers were the only team in the NBA that had never sent a player to a D-League affiliate.
"(Pacers general manager) Kevin Pritchard is an old minor-league guy who I've known a long time, and he believes in the minor-league system," Ticknor said. "Coach (Frank) Vogel knows young guys need to play."
Plumlee, who played a Duke, is a native of Warsaw. Johnson played at UC-Santa Barbara.