‘Hungry’ Johnson Making Most of Latest NBA Chance

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

You can’t really call this forward James Johnson’s second chance because the Memphis Grizzlies are his fifth NBA team, if you count his four preseason games with the Atlanta Hawks before being released last October.

So, more likely, this is closer to Johnson’s last chance.

“As long as he keeps playing like his back is up against the wall, then he’s gonna be fine,” said Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger. “He’s very hungry. He realizes sometimes maybe we take this life for granted. And I think maybe being out (of the NBA), sometimes that can put things in perspective. He’s playing like he wants to stay in the league for the next 10 years. As long as he plays with that desire level, he’ll stay.”

Memphis Grizzlies’ James Johnson has been making the most of his opportunity since joining the team in mid-December. He’s averaging 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Through seven games, the last coming against the team that drafted him 16th overall in 2009 – the Chicago Bulls – Johnson, 26, has exceeded expectations for a journeyman called up from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League.

It’s not just that Johnson is well ahead of his career numbers by averaging 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. It’s that Johnson brings a combination of energy, intensity, athleticism and strength in his 6-9, 245-pound body that the Grizzlies sorely lack. In sum, he is everything that aging Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince are not.

Yet they are also the ones who already have those 10 years on their NBA resumes. They’ve won NBA titles. They’re proven professionals, if undeniably near the end of nice careers.

Johnson, almost five years after being drafted, is still trying to establish himself. The Bulls gave up on Johnson and traded him to Toronto for a first-round pick. The Raptors gave up on Johnson and traded him to Sacramento for a second-round pick. The Kings had little use for him and then the Hawks took a quick look and passed.

So is his back up against the wall?

“That was a good analogy of how I’m playing, but I don’t want to play like my back’s up against the wall and every little ticky-tack mess-up I’m scared I’m gonna get cut,” Johnson said. “I understand what coach is saying and I somewhat agree, but at the same time I’m just playing my normal game.

“I’d never been cut before Atlanta; my family still loved and respected me, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Johnson continued. “All your nerves are right there. You always want to be in the league. You never want to get cut. It happened to me. I kept my faith in the Lord and I kept my attitude right and my heart right and now I’m just playing within myself and knowing what I can and can’t do.”

That last part is crucial. Early on, Joerger praised Johnson for striking that balance, saying, “Sometimes you get guys that come in and try to show you the whole package and what they end up doing is showing you what they can’t do. James hasn’t done that.”

He perhaps did a little in the Grizzlies’ recent 95-91 loss to the Bulls, forcing a few plays as he went 4-for-13 from the floor. Still, he finished with a double-double: 13 points, 10 rebounds, plus three assists, three blocks and two steals. When he scored 14 points with seven rebounds and a team-high six assists in a blowout win over Denver, he made a stat line that no Grizzlies reserve gave the team all of last season.

So even though Joerger said Johnson’s “timing was off” against the Bulls, he stuck with him. Gave him 24 minutes, more time than anyone else on the bench.

“Even when you struggle, you still try to go and make some plays,” Joerger said. “That’s what I liked about what he did. He got back in it. He closed out on a guy and blocked a 3-point shot in the corner. He came down and helped out one of the bigs and got another blocked shot.

“He gives you some of the 50-50 balls. He runs hard. He’ll throw down a dunk here and there. People get excited about it.”

Including Johnson’s old coach in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau, who holds no ill will even though Johnson was at times frustrated with his lack of playing time.

“He’s a good guy,” Thibodeau said. “You know, he’s had good moments in his career before with us, with Toronto. Sometimes it takes awhile. He’s got ability.”

He also has a son, Naymin, not yet a year old, that Johnson says has provided motivation that was sometimes lacking.

“I’ve realized you have to work hard if you want to be the best,” Johnson said. “You can’t just think you’re the best. You have to really work. For someone who didn’t have any kids and was young, I should have been back at the gym three or four times a day.

“But after practice, I was relaxing, going home, enjoying the fruits of my so-called labor. Now that I have a kid, I go to the gym more and I want to get better even more. You want to lead by example.”

That is exactly what he has been doing for the Grizzlies.

“He needs to keep playing with that hunger and desire,” Joerger said. “That stuff is really contagious with our guys, gives us some pop and energy.”