His defense has always set him apart, but this year it’s different. JaJuan Johnson was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 — the best defender in the NCAA conference most known for its defense — but he advanced to NBA training camp and it sometimes felt like he was standing in the middle of the road as trucks came blasting through.
Some opponents powered through him. Others simply backed him down with ease. Johnson has the frame of a person too bashful to ask for second helpings, and his adjustment to the NBA did not work nearly as quickly as his metabolism.
He played 28 minutes through Boston’s first 20 games, appearing on the court just nine times. The skills that encouraged Boston to select him with the 25th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft still existed — the smooth jump shot equipped with a high release, the 38-inch vertical, the gait of a gazelle — yet Johnson observed from the bench as every other big man on Boston’s roster, including basketball nomad Greg Stiemsma, received his chance.
Johnson’s inability to hold his ground in the post wasn’t the only reason he found himself stapled to a cushioned seat during games — during brief preseason and early-season stints, he often played as if the shot clock showed one second at all times, as if every move he made was rushed to beat the buzzer. Stepping into the NBA is difficult, he provided a reminder, especially when each stint he played lasted just two or three minutes. Searching to find a level of comfort despite a frustrating lack of playing time, Johnson simply needed to see a little bit of success. (ESPN Boston)
“I’ve been feeling a little bit more comfortable lately. I would say the last two or three weeks, it’s been really good for me. Starting the season like I did — I had a couple of airballs in there — I think it was just a little jitters and being so tight coming off the bench, stuff like that. I’ve just tried to see a few shots fall,” he said.
They fell last night, when he scored 11 points in nine minutes, almost doubling his season total of 17. He likely entered the contest against the Toronto Raptors thinking he would not take off his warmup jersey — after all, he received DNP-CD’s in six of Boston’s previous seven games. Yet he left the gym with some lofty stats — they were accumulated in mop-up time, sure, but Johnson has 28 points in 38 minutes while shooting 63 percent with a 31.06 PER — and he left it as the number one target of Doc Rivers’ praise.
“I told you guys last week, JaJuan will play — I really believe this,” Rivers said. “Sooner than later. You see it in our silly practices we have — the 3-on-3 practices — he just keeps getting better. His energy is unbelievable. He’s an offensive weapon, he can shoot the ball, he can run the floor.”
Most importantly, Johnson is finding ways to combat his biggest weakness.
“And where he’s really improved is his position defensively on the post. Early on, guys were just bowling through him. He’s learned now you can use your chest, you can use your arms, you can slide with your feet — and he’s doing all that.
“JaJuan’s going to be a good player. And I really believe that. Maybe this year.”
Maybe the time will come shortly when Rivers looks down the bench and calls on No. 12. For now, is behind Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass in the rotation, he is even behind Stiemsma and Chris Wilcox, and there are reasons for that. While he sits on the bench, he should listen, learn and prepare himself for any opportunity that knocks on his door.
“Just coming from college, having the success you have, you’ve got to see the bigger picture,” Johnson said. “I understand my time will come. And when my time comes, I have to be ready — at all times. That’s what I try to do.”