It’s been three years since Amir Johnson donned an NBA uniform, yet his contributions to the league remain relevant and strong.
The 34-year-old longtime NBA veteran signed with the G League Ignite club, a group of NBA prospects, many of whom are on $500,000 contracts following high school, as a means to prepare for the draft. NBA lottery picks Jalen Green (Rockets) and Jonathan Kuminga (Warriors) were drafted after one season with the Ignite with Johnson as their mentor.
Johnson wants to serve as the old head on the Ignite, the veteran presence who can teach aspiring NBA players how to be a professional. Nearly two decades ago, Johnson entered the draft out of Westchester (Los Angeles) High School, the final prep-to-pros class. He played 12 seasons and parts of two others with the Pistons, Raptors, Celtics and 76ers, and he found playing with the Ignite as a means to remain in the game and pass along his knowledge.
The Ignite played against the Cleveland Charge during All-Star Weekend, and Johnson and his teammates played at Cleveland State just hours before the All-Star Game, giving the young guys exposure to the All-Star atmosphere as they begin their trek to the highest level.
“Times like this you have to just experience it because you might not get to come here anymore,” Johnson told the Globe. “I tell the youngins, to take it all in. This is the highest level of basketball and you get to see it and it’s dope and I’m happy for them.”
Johnson knows he may never get back to the NBA, but he wanted to teach and still has the skills to play. He averaged 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds as a backup center for the Ignite, but he’s an asset to the coaching staff because of his vast experience and knowledge, especially of defense.
“It’s perfect for me to be here because I was in the same position as these guys,” he said. “I just have a lot of say-so, just from experience, for me to be here with these young guys coming out of high school at 18 and they get to come here first to get some learning experience and then go. It’s amazing because when I went, everybody in the NBA was like 30 and up. Now you get some vets on this team and they get to learn and then go in the fire.”
Johnson, who last played for the 76ers in 2019, didn’t want to just go home and chill with his kids. He’s only 34. He was in the unusual position of being too young to give up the game but not a real consideration for an NBA contract. The G-League was the ideal landing spot.
“It was just a no-brainer for me to be here,” he said. “It’s good seeing guys like Jalen [Green] and Jonathan Kuminga thrive and play at the next level. Just can’t wait for the next guys to be up and see what they can do.”
But why? The G-League isn’t glamourous. Many games are in smaller arenas with no fanfare. It’s mainly a training ground for prospects. Many players who are advanced in their careers play there for the adoration of the game, with little chance of even a 10-day NBA contract.
“Maybe I have another calling for coaching but I love the game and want to be around it,” he said. “I still have that itch to go out there and hoop. And I feel like I can talk to guys more when I’m actually on the court and playing. I asked Scoot [Henderson] is it easier when I’m on the court talking to you on defense? He was like, ‘yes.’ ”
Johnson, who played two seasons with the Celtics and was a member of the Eastern Conference finals team in 2017, was a defensive stalwart, screen-setter, and rebounder. He refined a skill set that made him a valuable commodity in the league for years.
“There’s certain stuff I know playing the game,” he said. “I tell them I’ve been in the league 15 years, made close to $100 million and I averaged 6 points in the NBA. Even if they don’t know my career, I tell them I wasn’t a superstar but I always did the little things. What make teams win games are the little things. If you can make someone else better on that team, that makes a great teammate and I totally agree with them.
“[The Thunder] has Nick Collison’s jersey retired and he wasn’t a Top 50 guy. He was just a solid dude that set screens, good person around the community. Guys like that can last a long way in the league. You just have to find that niche and find what works.
“When you’re on a team like Golden State, you’re going to have to learn how to play defense, how to gel with a team. I think they are learning, it just takes repetition.”
Johnson said he is telling the prospects, such as Henderson, Jaden Hardy and Michael Foster Jr. about life off the floor. The NBA life is not easy. There is sudden wealth, family pressure, the night life.
“Take your mind off getting paid, getting minutes. Go have fun, go play basketball and go learn,” he said he tells his young teammates. “Listen to what people have to say that’s been doing it. Once that carries on, it doesn’t matter if one person or 50,000 people are in the crowd. You’re going to focus on the task at hand, which is play basketball and play the right way.”
Johnson earned $35 million in the final three full seasons of his NBA career. He said he allowed his mother to handle his financial affairs when he came into the league at 18. But he’s urging his Ignite teammates to take more control of their finances, take more responsibility for their livelihood instead of just being ballers.
There are too many cases of NBA players blowing their money or losing their riches because of frivolous spending or failed investments. Johnson said adulthood begins for these prospects the moment they became professionals.
“I tell these guys when they’re dealing with family, show you’re family that you’re a man now,” he said. “Speak up and say your opinion, and tell them what’s on your mind. Let them know, communicate what’s going on.
“There’s a lot that comes with this life. You want to know everybody’s that’s working for you, their name, how much you’re paying them. I always ask them, who’s your agent? How much you paying them? I didn’t know at first. I had to learn the business side because at first I let my mom do it. You want to jump into that early because you know what’s going on. Eventually your mom is going to have to get out of your business and you’re going to have to handle it yourself. Ask questions. Check your money because some of the top players you love been [taken advantage of].”
Johnson’s chances of an NBA return are miniscule. When teams were allowed to sign players to 10-day hardship contracts because of COVID-19, several G-League veterans got calls. Johnson didn’t.
“If it comes around I definitely wouldn’t mind,” he said. “If a team needs my services, I certainly know what to do to help a team out. I certainly wouldn’t come and mess up what an organization’s got going. I would blend right in because I know what to do with certain teams on the come up. That’s been the story of my career, going to Toronto, starting up when [Chris Bosh] left and to Boston when the Big Three left, trying to get to the playoffs. I know how to be a good teammate.”
Johnson said he has aspirations to coach, and he has received just as much knowledge from the experience as he has given.
“I’m learning a lot about the coaching part,” he said. “I’m learning to use my knowledge I have to teach guys certain stuff. I teach them how to play basketball, move the ball and set screens, just certain things that I’ve done and tricks I learned from [Rasheed Wallace]. A lot of the stuff we learned from the vets and I just pass it on.”
Still, the travel takes Johnson away from his family. He could be home living comfortably and being retired. Instead, he’s grinding against Santa Cruz and Sioux Falls. But he loves that life.
“The family wants me home, I ain’t going to lie to you but they have an understanding,” he said. “They know I have a passion for it. Family, we’re always going to figure it out. They’re always going to have my best intentions and my back.
“I’m going to play until I can’t go no more. It keeps me in shape. It keeps me busy. Keeps me involved. I don’t want to just disappear and then what happened to Amir? But I want to stay in the groove so people know I love the game and I want to learn a different side. Seeing these guys get drafted is like a championship to me. I got to experience playing with them. That’s my championship right there.”
SHOE FREE AGENCY
For Jaylen Brown, one step at a time
Jaylen Brown remains a sneaker free agent, which is a big deal in today’s NBA circles. Brown’s deal with Adidas expired in 2021 and he has been rocking several types of shoes in games this season. Brown is taking the decision seriously, as he does with every other career decision.
The enjoyable part for Brown is choosing which shoe to wear for each game. One day it could be Nikes, then New Balances, then perhaps Under Armour or Converse.
“Yeah I feel free; I feel free,” Brown said. “I think that’s how things have been over the last, I don’t know how long, you’ve got to rock one brand and stick with it. But it’s a new day and age and me and my whole brand is different. We’re trying to shift the mold of the athlete and the way things are done, so for me, I’m enjoying my freedom right now and we’ll see what happens down the line.”
Brown said he has had negotiations with competing shoe companies, but nothing to his preference.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with people and everything kind of tends to be the same,” Brown said. “Fit this athlete in this slot and if it’s not him, then we’ll fit another athlete into that slot. You really don’t get nothing out of it. So for me, I’ve been trying to push for some type of individualism, you know what I mean?
“If you want to sign Jaylen, you have to look at what I do off the court as well and try to magnify that platform as well, whether it’s my foundation, whether it’s social activism, charity, whatever. That needs to be included. These brands, they talk but they don’t want to include anything that I want to do off the court. It sounds good but when it really comes down to it, they don’t really care.”
Brown has created his own “7uice” Foundation and clothing line, and when asked if he could consider creating his own sneaker, similar to former NBA player Stephon Marbury, he was intrigued.
“I keep an open mind,” he said, smiling. “It’s an idea that you think about but right now I’m still in the midst of seeing if somebody cares about what goes on outside of basketball and right now, nobody does. [My own shoe] might be something that’s part of the plan. We’ll see.”
Several other shoe companies have approached Brown, a rising talent, about his services. But the decision is not simple. It’s far more than just wearing cool sneakers on a nightly basis or filming commercials.
“Over the course of this season, I’ve had some meetings, some talks and my team has went back and forth and discussed and argued,” he said. “It’s been dope because a lot of people, they just see what you do on the court. And then off the court, they don’t understand how that whole world works as well. How hard it is to have a platform that stands for something and at the same time, have endorsements. That’s a conversation that doesn’t exist, They’d rather you just be non-controversial, smile, don’t say anything because it’s safe.
“All the athletes that I admire. They’re not that. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. The greats that I admire were outspoken and stood for something. It’s interesting to see they try to push the athlete to do the opposite.”
The Hawks are expected to be without power forward John Collins for the rest of the regular season with a right foot issue and a fractured finger. That means Atlanta will have a more difficult time avoiding the 10th and final playoff spot and having to win two games to get into the main playoff tournament. The Hawks made an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals last season behind the heroics of Trae Young and a strong, young supporting cast. This first full season under Nate McMillan has not worked out as expected and the Hawks are going to be part of the play-in session with three weeks left in the regular season. The Wizards, despite a season-ending injury to Bradley Beal, were in the running for the play-in until a West Coast trip swoon … Russell Westbrook may not be a Laker next season but he’s going to be on somebody’s payroll with a $47 million option, the final year of that extension he signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook has experienced a miserable season and taken most of the blame for the Lakers’ disappointing season. Westbrook’s offensive numbers aren’t as ghastly as they seem this season. Westbrook’s misses — airballs and balls off the backboard — have been magnified. And he’s become a liability on offense because of his inability to shoot the 3-pointer. Opposing teams are leaving Westbrook wide open and he is still only a 27.7 percent shooter from beyond the arc. His well-chronicled issues with Patrick Beverley made headlines again this week when Beverley was calling Westbrook “trash” to the Lakers’ sideline while Karl-Anthony Towns rebounded a Westbrook air ball and made a joking gesture as if there was a breeze in the Target Center. The Lakers and Westbrook just haven’t worked out and they could have moved him back to Houston for John Wall, who hasn’t played this season and has a contract that matches Westbrook, but Los Angeles did not want to relinquish a first-round pick in the deal. The rebuilding Rockets are content to allow Wall’s contract to expire and continue their youth movement. The Lakers are going to have to start winning to earn a spot in the play-in tournament. They entered Friday 2½ games ahead of the Spurs. Of the Lakers’ final 13 games, nine are on the road and 11 are against teams in playoff contention or fighting for playoff seed.