Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Unsung No More, Miami's Johnson Has Survived The Hard Route

Tyler Johnson stood in the bowels of American Airlines Arena, flanked by a small entourage that included a trainer and two fans.

It was February.

The then 22-year-old Johnson was still in the embryonic stages of meaningful NBA minutes.

Bolstered by a throwback 32-point performance from Chris Bosh, Miami stormed out of a dreadful 14-point deficit to stamp a 109-95 win over the hapless Knicks.

Clutching a jug of water and drenched in sweat, Johnson was approached by a Heat team employee.

"I'm sorry, this area is reserved for players and families only," said the employee, failing to recognize the undrafted Johnson as a newly-minted roster-filler.

Hey, in all fairness, it surely wasn't the first time someone has overlooked Johnson.

Unsung and lightly recruited out of high school, the Mountain View, Calif. native received minimal Bay Area interest.

This is despite possessing deceptive hops, pulling off electric displays of athleticism which won over crowds throughout California's hoops proving grounds.

Adversity can evolve into a real demon, should you allow it to.

Rather than internalizing setbacks, rather than wallowing in mounting frustration, Johnson converted the agony into insatiable competitive hunger.

Johnson upped his workload. A kid who once motored through the monstrous sand hills of San Francisco regularly, he ramped up with the unrequired work.

As a three-year starter at Fresno State, Johnson evolved into the program's most decorated alum on this side of Paul George.

While preparing for the pro ranks, Johnson was again dealt a dose of adversity. Just three teams--the Lakers, Warriors, and Heat, to be exact--extended Johnson an invitation for workouts.

Refusing to let his lifelong dream diminish, Johnson had a small window to prove his value.

"I remember coming out of pre-draft, I was working with (Elev8's) Cody Toppert and Ganon Baker and all of these guys around me kept going off to pre-draft workouts," recalls Johnson, who averaged 18.5 points during 13 games in Sioux Falls before darting his way into Miami's rotation in mid-winter.

"I only ended up going to three workouts. Everybody else is getting like 15-16 workouts. They were coming back like, 'ahh, I don't want to go to another workout.' I still hadn't gone to one yet."

Shades of Johnson's recruiting process resurfaced. Again, teams mistakenly passed on Johnson.

Few even put eyes on the explosive 6-foot-4 off guard, rather than simply gauging the NBA readiness of his high-flying game.

There's no confusion about who Johnson is or where his game belongs now.

When Johnson arrived at the doorstep out of Sioux Falls, he looked fresh from some epic post-prom party on one of California's cold-watered beaches.

 Young, unproven, and very much a question mark, few understood Johnson's upside.

His true coming out party would occur in early March, as the short-handed heat cruised to a 115-98 victory over the Suns.

With Bosh out for the season and the elusive, hard-driving Goran Dragic seizing the reins of the offense, Johnson exploded for 26 points.

Flushed into a three-guard rotation, Johnson overcame an ugly spill in which he landed badly on his ankle.

Attacking the rim with full throttle explosion, soaring by unsuspecting defenders, and putting his left hand to use from mid-range and beyond, Johnson's full arsenal was evident.

"When I did get my name called, I was going to be ready," Johnson said.

"It's better to be ready and not get an opportunity than to get an opportunity and not be ready."

Johnson's opportunity emerged while Miami was in the midst of some soul searching.

Prior to losing Bosh, the evolution of transcendent big man Hassan Whiteside whipped through Miami like wildfire.

Like Johnson, Whiteside landed in Miami following wilderness-like obscurity.

A constant double-double threat virtually overnight, Whiteside's journey included stops with Sioux Falls and the Iowa Energy of the D-League.

He played professionally in China and Lebanon.

 Both unknowns and presumably unpolished, Whiteside and Johnson have established themselves as youthful faces of the franchise.  More significant roles are anticipated in 2015-16.

"For Tyler, taking the next step is going to be expanding his role from just a sparkplug to a guy who is going to be able to play extended minutes consecutively and have production really in all aspects of the game," said Toppert, who has helped push Johnson's development.

"It will mean dropping assists, playing in the pick-and-roll, coming off pin downs, filling the corner, knocking down shots and also creating closeouts, attacking the basket and making good decisions. He's an excellent rebounder, offensively and defensively. He proved he can play great defense both on and off the basketball."


Who is Tyler Johnson?

Where did he come from?

 Where did he develop such extraterrestrial bounce?

These questions would have never surfaced, had Johnson's road been simpler. Johnson took the hard route, one filled with redundant potholes and detours.

His whole career nearly, he's had a hill to climb.

Johnson was barely 5-foot-9 up until his junior year of high school.

 His status on the Division-I recruiting market? Schools located smack in his own backyard didn't even offer.

"If I had an offer from Santa Clara, I probably would have gone," said Johnson.
"I didn't get an offer from USF, nobody in that area. Nobody in the Bay really. St. Mary's came in late, but they kind of passed up on me too. Every time we played them (at Fresno State), I had that little bit of edge. I prepared a little more, just so I could show them what they passed up on."

At Fresno State, Johnson averaged 15.9 points, 7.3 boards, and 2.9 assists as a seasoned senior starter.

His prodigious bounce opened eyes, with an increase in consistency enhancing his professional stock.

As a Cali-bred kid, Johnson relished the opportunities against top-tier competition.

 Entrenched in hyper-intense battles with local area products such as Jeremy Tyler and Aaron Gordon kept his NBA focus alive, his game levitating with the stage.

 Johnson's mother, Jennifer, serves in the Air Force.

His childhood idol was Kobe Bryant.

And so Johnson learned his goals would have to be attained the old fashioned way--through gritty, hard work.

"Tyler was never handed anything," said Toppert.

"Anything he wanted, he had to take. There's a lot of kids out there today who think because they played on a Nike AAU team and Nike gave them a pair of shoes, that they're a sponsored athlete. Or Adidas gave them a pair of shoes, they're a sponsored athlete. What's been bred and built in grass-roots basketball is a mentality of entitlement. Guys think they are entitled to being good."

Never entertaining doubt or backing down from a challenge, Johnson admired Kobe for his infectious swagger.

 He didn't mind the number of adversaries or enemies Kobe made along the way, either.

Kobe's gym fiend mentality and cocksure attitude resonated with Johnson.

 "I didn't grow up in the Mike era, so it was just Kobe's demeanor and the way he approached the game," Johnson said.

"The fact that he wanted to win so bad, that's what appealed to me. He doesn't care about anything else but winning. They say 'he's a jerk,' or he's this or he's that. A lot of people hate on him because they can't do the things he's capable of doing. Whenever somebody can't beat you physically they're going to try to verbally tear you down."

The Grind Is Real

Johnson doesn't let a lot of room in his life for distraction.

With three physical workouts a day and two basketball workouts a day, he knows where he has to be come October.

He'll continue to sharpen his shot, sharpen his reads, and provide a high-energy option Miami seems to eat off of.

Cutting and snaking to the rim helped him extend his stay in the league.

 Training with Toppert, he's not only matured physically but mentally as well.

After all, as Johnson has acknowledged, the most daunting challenges at the highest level of play are strictly between the ears.

Currently, Johnson is pushing himself through a painstaking workout regimen at Elev8 in Delray Beach.

 His focus has shifted to precise actions he'll have within the Heat's offensive playbook.

 Becoming more fundamentally sound and adding on to his all-around game, Johnson said his focus is now one day at a time.

Getting better each day, progressing, and keeping his goals intact are all that matters.