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.
It’s life, he sayswith a bit of a shrug. It’s been this way my whole career. I’ve always had to answer questions about my size. It’s just one of those things where people looking in from the outside.
I’m a thinner guy, but I think I’m just as strong as these other guys and just as athletic, maybe more athletic; faster. That’s why I’m going back to the things I’m good at and I’m confident what I can do.
That’s been one of the knocks on Johnson – that because he’s a lanky 220 pounds and could snap like a piece of kindling, he can’t handle an 82-game NBA season.
And even though Boston traded the former first-round pick, Johnson’s former Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, thinks Johnson has the game to be an NBA player.
I know he has the talent, I’ll put it that way, Rivers told the NESN website. I told him that this summer. He’s going to either have to pull it out of himself or he’ll 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 Johnson’s ability.
Talent, he’s got. You don’t 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 hasn’t 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 can’t take plays off, and he has a tendency to not sprint. When he doesn’t use his God-given athleticism, he might as well be 6-5. There aren’t many players his size who can run and jump and do the things he does.
It’s Ticknor’s way of saying Johnson has to play like he’s 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 I’ve ever played at I’ve had to prove myself, Johnson said. The NBA’s no different. Obviously I have to put a lot more time in and keep working. I’m really confident that everything’s going to work out. I haven’t lost faith. I know what I can do on the court. It’s really just finding a good fit and a good situation for myself.