Johnson making case for a rookie role
February, 1, 2012
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- The crowd around the rookie’s locker intrigued Mickael Pietrus, so the veteran swingman detoured on his way to the showers and popped his head through the crowd to get a listen at what JaJuan Johnson had to say.
Finally, during a lull in the questioning, Pietrus, the team's resident chops-buster offered, "Whenever you’re done with the media, let’s keep it real -- get me some water."
Ah yes, the glamorous life of a rookie, where the biggest gameday task is sometimes the run to the local convenience store to secure the peanut butter and jelly that will comprise the pregame snack (and heaven help you if you forget to purchase both grape and strawberry varieties).
Limited to 28 total minutes (and never in more than a six-minute burst) in the first nine appearances of his rookie campaign, Johnson might have been the chief beneficiary of Boston's lopsided victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The 27th overall pick in last summer's draft received the longest stint of his NBA career, logging 9 minutes 43 seconds of court time in the fourth quarter and responded by chipping in 11 points while making all five shots he hoisted en route to a breezy 100-64 triumph.
"It definitely helps [my confidence]. I know I can compete with these guys," the soft-spoken Johnson said. "I never had any doubts about that, but it’s just a comfort level. That’s where it helped me out tonight."
While acknowledging that the performance came in the fourth quarter of a blowout against an Andrea Bargnani-less Raptors squad that might have resembled a D-League squad on the second night of a back-to-back, Celtics coach Doc Rivers clearly was impressed by what he saw from Johnson and went so far as to suggest that -- combined with what he's displayed outside of game action -- it could mean more opportunities moving forward.
"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. 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.
For a coach notorious for keeping rookies glued to the pine in recent years, that's a lofty suggestion (though it remains to be seen if Rivers follows through with it). But Johnson has been a diligent worker -- even as college teammate and Boston's second-round pick, E'Twaun Moore, has logged more than six times as much action as him over the first 20 games of their rookie campaigns. Johnson is a bit of a victim of playing behind the likes of Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, but has kept his focus on being patient.
"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."
He certainly was ready on Wednesday. Johnson made four buckets in a mere 3:15 span in the middle of the fourth quarter, converting three shots around the hoop and adding a 20-foot jumper as part of his offensive outburst.
"It’s good for me, personally, to have a game like this," Johnson said. "I definitely want to be a contributor on this team, so I’m going to do all I can to put extra time in and help this team win games.
"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."
Down go the shots, up goes the confidence.
Johnson fully admits he still needs to improve on the defensive side of the ball, learning Boston's help-defense schemes, while also figuring out how to combat players who are bigger, stronger, more physical and more athletic than he played against in college.
But Johnson said his teammates are working hard to help bring him along. They see the potential as well.
With Pietrus still in the postgame huddle, Johnson playfully noted, "MP’s helping me out, he's helping me find my level of confidence. What I’m doing, I’m watching his swag, see how he does his thing."
Later, turning more serious, he admitted the veterans have been nothing but encouraging.
"They look out for us, they do nothing but show us love right here," Johnson said. "They might make us do little things, but nothing big."
Like get them some water? That's a small tradeoff for all the knowledge they've already imparted on him.