FORT WAYNE – JaJuan Johnson is coming back to Indiana with something to prove. But instead of being with the NBA Indiana Pacers, he’ll be two hours north of his Indianapolis home as a member of the NBA D-League Mad Ants, who, as expected, made Johnson the No. 1 overall pick in Friday’s draft.
As a 6-foot-10 All-America center in his senior season at Purdue two years ago, Johnson averaged 20.5 points and 8.6 rebounds and was the Big Ten Player of the Year. And for good measure, he was also named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But what looked to be a sure NBA career stalled in Boston last season when he played sparingly in 36 games and averaged 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds and was traded. Then, when he was cut in last month’s training camp by the Houston Rockets, it paved the way for him to come to the Ants.
I’m coming in with a positive mindset, Johnson said in a telephone interview. Definitely I would want to be in the NBA, but I’m going to make the best of the situation and work hard at it and help the Mad Ants win games.
Winning is something the team has had trouble with. Entering its sixth season, the franchise has not had a winning season, and last year had the D-League’s worst record at 14-36.
It’s much better than I anticipated, first-year coach Duane Ticknor said of Johnson’s attitude. That’s a tough, tough situation for him, and I’m really proud of the way he’s accepted it and taken it as a personal challenge to prove people he belongs in the NBA. I think he’s going to come in and play with a real fire in his belly.
Already the fire is beginning to kindle.
In a way I do have to prove to people that I can play, Johnson said. I’m very positive in what I can do. I think sometimes, you look at my frame (220 pounds), and they just assume I can’t hold my own or something like that. I’ve been dealing with it for a while and had success at the highest level in college, and I’ve had a few opportunities in NBA games and played pretty well.
Ticknor said he’s excited to get a player of Johnson’s skills, and predicted the former NBA first-round draft pick will be back in the NBA.
I honestly don’t believe he’s going to be here a long time, Ticknor said. He’s an NBA-caliber player, but hopefully he can get us off to a quick start.
Two Indiana Tech players were drafted, including Bryant Austin, a 6-6 forward chosen in the eighth round by the Ants. Bryant averaged 10.5 points and 6 rebounds with the 2008-09 Warriors.
Also, 6-8 Rodney Bartholomew was picked in the fifth round by Tulsa.
Bartholomew averaged 17.5 points and 11.4 rebounds last season.
In other moves, the Ants traded two players from last year’s roster. Guards Thomas Baudinet and Cameron Jones were sent to the Santa Cruz Warriors (formerly Dakota Wizards), and in return a got the No. 3 draft pick from Canton and Mike Anderson a 6-8 forward.