Johnson turns heads with his solid outing
Progress comes in small increments for JaJuan Johnson. The Celtics rookie likely won’t get major minutes this season. He likely won’t play a major role in the success of the team, so he has to take nights like last night and cherish them. He has to build off them.
He played the final 9:43 against the Raptors, with his team already ahead 24 points and coach Doc Rivers using the fourth quarter for much-needed and well-deserved rest for his starters. Over that stretch, Johnson scored a career-high 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting in Boston’s 100-64 win.
Johnson wants to be more than a sideshow or garbage time player this season, but Rivers makes it a point not to fast track rookies, especially those who have to make a position adjustment in the NBA. While college teammate E’Twaun Moore is a combo guard as he was at Purdue, Johnson is trying to adjust from being a center to a small power forward.
He has the athleticism to defend forwards but hardly the bulk or size to check centers. So he has small windows to flourish and he capitalized last night, scoring on an array of jumpers and layups against Toronto’s second teamers.
While his contribution mattered hardly to the victory, he is making an impression on the one who matters most, Rivers.
“I told you last week, JaJuan will play, I really believe this,’’ Rivers said. “Sooner than later. You can see it in the silly practices that we have. He just keeps getting better. His energy is unbelievable. He’s an offensive weapon. He can shoot the ball. He can run the floor and where he’s really improved is his positioning defensively on the post. JaJuan’s going to be a good player, I really believe that and maybe this year.’’
Johnson has waited patiently while Moore has played extensive minutes in the absence of Rajon Rondo. Moore was the second-round pick, taken 55th overall while Johnson won the Big Ten Player of the Year award over Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger. He was the first-round pick and there was a belief that he could emerge as Kevin Garnett’s backup at power forward.
But the Celtics acquired Brandon Bass and Rivers discovered that Johnson needs to develop physically to become a consistent contributor, so the Indianapolis native has had to wait.
“I obviously watch KG and Brandon a lot because they are at my position,’’ Johnson said. “I try to mimic those things and do it even better if I can.’’
One important thing Johnson picked up was the desire to listen to Garnett’s advice. Garnett usually gives young guys one chance to learn from his experience and if they don’t respond accordingly, he is done. Johnson listened attentively during practice when Garnett calls him “rook.’’
“He’s always there to answer any questions that I have,’’ Johnson said. “He gives me advice during the game. I messed up on a play during the game and he told me just to stick with it and keep playing, and I did that.’’
The transition from college to the pros can be tough. The NBA is a league in which you have to fill a role, play a position. Players who were superstars at shooting guard have to play point because of their size. Those who swooped through the air blocking shots and grabbing rebounds are relegated to playing forward because they are only 6 feet 7 inches.
Johnson is learning to adjust on the fly. He expected to play more than 38 minutes through 21 games but may have made a bid for additional time with his performance last night. He’ll just wait and see.
“It’s just the speed and the process of the things is the biggest difference,’’ he said. “Once you find that comfort level, that’s when you start to have more success. I’m definitely finding that level. This is only one game, it’s definitely good for me. I definitely want to be a contributor to this team and I want to put in the hard work to make it happen. I understand my time will come.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.