FORT WAYNE – The fact has not been lost that JaJuan Johnson was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year when he was a senior at Purdue two years ago. But being defensive can get more than a little taxing.
Ever since he was released by from the Houston Rockets training camp before the 2012-13 NBA season began, Johnson has been defending himself like a chicken thief with feathers in his pocket.
Why did you get traded from Boston?
Why did you get cut by Houston?
What are you doing in the D-League?
Are you too small to play a big forward?
Are you too big to play a small forward?
What did you do with Jimmy Hoffa?
The first-round NBA Development League draft pick of the Mad Ants bends his 6-foot-10 frame at the knees and takes a seat on a pulled-out wooden bleacher inside the dark Concordia Seminary gym, which has become his new practice facility.
Its life, he sayswith a bit of a shrug. Its been this way my whole career. Ive always had to answer questions about my size. Its just one of those things where people looking in from the outside.
Im a thinner guy, but I think Im just as strong as these other guys and just as athletic, maybe more athletic; faster. Thats why Im going back to the things Im good at and Im confident what I can do.
Thats been one of the knocks on Johnson – that because hes a lanky 220 pounds and could snap like a piece of kindling, he cant handle an 82-game NBA season.
And even though Boston traded the former first-round pick, Johnsons former Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, thinks Johnson has the game to be an NBA player.
I know he has the talent, Ill put it that way, Rivers told the NESN website. I told him that this summer. Hes going to either have to pull it out of himself or hell be there (in the D-League), but I do believe that he has NBA talent. I hope he makes it.
There seems to be a consensus among coaches when it comes to Johnsons ability.
Talent, hes got. You dont become the Big Ten Player of the Year, average 20 points and nearly nine rebounds at Purdue without skills.
But when it comes to drive and desire and the intangibles for which there are no statistics, the professional basketball jury is still out.
Even though he played 30 games in the NBA last year, most of it was garbage time, Ants coach Duane Ticknor said. So he really hasnt played in a year and a half. We just need to get him out here playing every day.
He needs to be more aggressive offensively and quit settling for jump shots all the time. He needs to relentlessly run the floor. He cant take plays off, and he has a tendency to not sprint. When he doesnt use his God-given athleticism, he might as well be 6-5. There arent many players his size who can run and jump and do the things he does.
Its Ticknors way of saying Johnson has to play like hes 6-10.
And now, the man known as J.J. is back to playing defense, and the one he is defending his himself.
Every level that Ive ever played at Ive had to prove myself, Johnson said. The NBAs no different. Obviously I have to put a lot more time in and keep working. Im really confident that everythings going to work out. I havent lost faith. I know what I can do on the court. Its really just finding a good fit and a good situation for myself.