It was the annual Celtics Shamrock dinner on Tuesday, and Boston newcomer Amir Johnson sat confidently on a stage with four of his teammates to discuss the upcoming season.
When his name was announced, Johnson was given a rousing round of applause, as if the season-ticket holder attendees were relieved that the former Toronto big man, who would pester the Celtics with jump hooks and offensive rebounds without a word uttered, was finally on their side.
It was a significant sign of respect for a player who has seemingly been in the NBA for an eternity. Ten years is an eternity in NBA years. Most players don’t last a decade, especially those who entered the NBA directly out of high school.
Johnson was a member of the final high school class allowed to declare, and if you need a quick reminder of his cohorts, Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis and Martell Webster were among those who joined Johnson and current NFL tight end Martellus Bennett, who withdrew his name before signing a football scholarship with Texas A&M.
Fresh out of Westchester High School in Los Angeles, Johnson was barely 18 when he was the last high school player drafted, 56th overall by the Detroit Pistons, who had just fallen short of repeating as NBA champions in a seven-game series loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Team management viewed Johnson as raw but brilliantly athletic. A member of the organization said Johnson was a big man with the “feet of a small forward, he was so nimble.” So the plan was to essentially put Johnson on moth balls, do what NBA teams have curtailed over the past few years, allowing Johnson to learn in the NBADL until he was ready.
Patience was higher in those days and Johnson played 11 games over his first two NBA seasons, spending most of his time with Fayetteville of the NBADL. What impressed Detroit officials about Johnson was that he didn’t embrace the NBA life as most 18-year-olds would be expected to do.
What’s more he asked to go back to the NBADL after being brought back to Detroit after a stint. And then is when the league was an eight-team outfit that includes teams in Roanoke, Albuquerque and Little Rock. His love for the game was unquestioned, it was about improvement.
“For me, I loved the game, it was just fun playing with my high school friends, I love it,” he said. “It was something I loved to do. I never really expected to get drafted. I just loved to play the sport. That’s what I was focused on.”
Johnson said he decided to enter the draft before his senior season, when he looked at the 2004 McDonalds All-America roster that included players such as Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Robert Swift, LaMarcus Aldridge, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Al Jefferson, and decided his class was equally as talented. Seven of the 24 players on that 2004 team entered the NBA Draft a few months later, bypassing college.
In addition, Johnson noticed a plethora of scouts attending his high school games, sensing that the 6-foot, 10-inch forward was leaning towards declaring.
“Time flies man when you actually sit down and [think about it] ” Johnson said when asked about his early days. “It doesn’t feel like 10 years. You go through all the things you’ve been through and you’re like ‘Yeah, it’s up there.’”
Being drafted by Detroit was perhaps the primary contributing factor to Johnson’s lasting power, he said. He was teammates with seasoned veterans such as Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Dale Davis.
The education of Amir Johnson occurred on and off the floor. While he learned post moves and boxing out, Johnson also soaked in the stories, striking his teammates with his shyness and willingness to learn.
“I think I was just put in a perfect situation,” he said. “We had all those old guys on the team and I had a great coach in Larry Brown and I was basically set to being developed there. Those guys taught me a lot on and off the court, being a young kid coming out of high school, I was put in a good situation. Everybody was like a father figure for me, I was so young. I got an opportunity where I developed and eventually I was able to start for that team.
“For me, I knew one thing and one thing only and that’s how to work hard. I never thought about minutes or playing. I just knew how to work and eventually my time would come. I knew it would take some time, but I continue to work.”
It’s that work ethic that made Johnson a fan favorite in Toronto when the Raptors acquired him in August 2009.
“The Boston fans are going to love Amir,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “He brings his hard hat every day to the court. He works on his game and is a good team guy. It was hard to see him go.”
Watching the Celtics’ rookies begin their introduction to the NBA conjures memories of a decade ago for Johnson. He wants to be the same mentor and guidance counselor he received in Detroit. He encourages his younger brethren to ask him for advice, listen to his stories, and lean on his experience.
Johnson is just 28, but on this roster, he is an “old head.” The NBA generations last about five years. Only five players on the Celtics roster were born in the 1980s, and Johnson realizes that his youthful NBA years have dissipated, replaced by preserving the body for his 30s.
He understands his place, embraces his experience and does not regret his decision to skip college.
“I’m like one of those caterpillars that bloomed into a butterfly and now I’m the one talking to the young guys on the team, telling them the experiences I’ve been through,” he said. “The main thing I’m telling them is they have to go through some of the experiences themselves.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.