In a time when college is seen as merely a stepping stone to the NBA, JaJuan Johnson is taking the road less traveled to the 2011 draft.
The former Purdue power forward took the advice of his mother, Rhonda Curlin, and finished school, becoming the first college grad in his family. He possesses not only an impressive midrange jumper, but also a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership and supervision.
"My mother started college but got pregnant with me at age 21 and was forced to drop out," Johnson said.
His biological father wasn't around much, so Curlin, who married Chris Curlin when Johnson was 8, raised her son as a single mom. Johnson concedes she was "tough" on him as she toiled at service jobs ranging from bus driver to cafeteria worker to provide for his needs.
Growing up in middle-class Indianapolis, Johnson possessed superb skills on the basketball court. In high school, he was named to the 2007 Indiana all-star team with future NBA players Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks) and Eric Gordon (Los Angeles Clippers).
Nevertheless, his mother continually instilled the importance of education.
"In high school, if I brought home a C and never asked for help in that class, she got upset at me," Johnson said. "There were times she held me out of AAU tournaments because of my poor grades."
Curlin stuck to the punishment, even in the face of pressure from his coaches.
"Coaches would ask me, 'How long is he going to be out?'" Curlin said. "I'd tell them, 'You run the court, and I'll run my house.'"
In 2010, Johnson almost fell prey to the lure of riches and lost sight of his mother's plan. Johnson entered the NBA draft but withdrew after scouts projected him as a second-round pick. Pundits now predict Johnson will go late in the first round or early in the second. According to ESPN NBA draft expert Chad Ford, out of the top 40 prospects, only 10 are college seniors like Johnson.
But the extra year helped Johnson's draft stock. The experience gave him the poise and NCAA accolades general managers like to see. In his senior year, Johnson was selected as the Pete Newell Big Man of the Year, Big Ten Player of the Year and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Coaches and general managers took notice.
"The more you get to see a player, the more comfortable you are with him," said Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. "You also know [that] if you're comfortable with that player, he will be in the league a long time."
Kupchak knows the trepidations of selecting a young player. In 2005, he selected high school senior Andrew Bynum, making him the youngest player, at age 18 years and 6 days, to play in an NBA game. Bynum worked well for the Lakers, but Kupchak says teams take a calculated risk by selecting underclassmen higher in the draft because it's unknown whether they will reach their potential.
For his part, Johnson feels slighted when teams admire players such as Kentucky's Enes Kanter, who never played a collegiate game after being ruled permenantly ineligible for accepting compensation as a player in Europe.
"When you stay in school longer, teams have more time to pick apart your game. But I know staying a fourth year helped me in this draft," said Johnson, who is now struggling with leaving behind friends and memories at Purdue.
"My Facebook page is blowing up with friend requests from classmates. I try not to log on anymore," Johnson said. "When you're tall like me, everyone on campus knows your face and name so it's kind of cool. I'm going to miss playing 'Mario Kart' and hanging out with my teammates in the hotel room on long road trips. Also, I'm going to miss how, after every game, win or lose, we sang the school song along with the student section."
Johnson will watch the draft at home with friends and family. He won't get a chance to walk across the stage at the Prudential Center to shake hands with commisioner David Stern.
After all, he knows how it felt to make a more important walk, across a bigger stage, with his mother looking on and beaming with pride every step of the way.