Rookie power forward Ivan Johnson is a bad man, but no longer a bad boy.
By Jon Cooper
Ivan Johnson only knows one way to play the game -- hard.
How hard can be enough to catch the attention of someone watching him, even for the first time.
The 27-year-old rookie from San Antonio, Texas, who had played two years overseas then last year in the NBA D-League, proved that during summer mini-camp to Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Larry Drew, who admittedly had never seen nor heard of him.
"My first impression was, 'He's a runaway truck with no brakes,'" said Drew. "He just plays hard. He's relentless the way he approaches the game, the way he goes after rebounds, the way he goes after loose balls. He shows no fear of playing against anybody. I really wanted him back at veterans camp because from a toughness standpoint, I'm always seeking those type players."
Things didn't change in veterans camp, where he similarly impressed Hawks players, who also hadn't a clue who this guy was.
"He brings that toughness and he's just a guy that knows how to play," said forward Al Hoford. "He's one of those tenacious defenders. He uses his hands real well and deflects balls and gets rebounds. We need a guy like that. I like his aggressiveness and that he's not scared."
"He's very aggressive out there in practice," agreed center Zaza Pachulia. "He plays tough. He does all the dirty work. He's the type of player that you want to have on your team but hate to play against. He brings a toughness into games. I like his aggressiveness and the physicality that he brings to the team."
"He's an animal, man," added forward Marvin Williams, with a laugh. "He plays SO HARD. He came in and really worked his butt off to be in this position. I think everybody in here is extremely happy for him."
Johnson wasn't settling for being happy to be there, however. He looked at every day as having a job to do. That's who he is. If a rebound is in the air or a loose ball is on the floor, he's determined to make it his.
"I work hard," he said. "That's what I had to do to get into the league and to stay here I've got to work hard. That's what I've been doing and I won't stop doing it."
At 6-8, 230, Johnson is one tough hombre who has paid his dues, often because of that intensity and the motor that never stops running.
He originally committed to play at the University of Cincinnati, but never played there, leaving after a coaching change, and would go on to play at four different schools over the next four years, finishing at Cal State San Bernardino. He then played professionally for two years in Puerto Rico, China and South Korea. Last year in the NBA D-League, he earned First-Team All-NBDL honors after averaging 22.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals in 49 games (42 starts) for the Erie Bayhawks. He shot 54.1 percent, 77.2 from the line.
His relentless style of play and determination while respected by his teammates has been a double-edged sword in the past for Johnson as his inability to channel his energy has hurt him.
He was told to leave the University of Oregon due to "anger management issues," received a lifetime ban from the pro league in South Korea after a few anger-related incidents, and even was goaded into a technical foul in his first NBA game by New Jersey's Mehmet Okur.
"I was just trying to win. I like to win, play well, keep my team playing smart, sharing the ball with everybody," he said. "The [technical fouls] I got, all the other stuff, I'm not really worried about that because anybody can change that. That's what I'm doing now."
He credits the veteran presence on the Hawks for that.
"Day-by-day, I'm taking it all in by the vets," he added. "Learning. That's what I'm going to do the whole time, learn. Being around [Jerry] Stackhouse, T-Mac, Josh [Smith], Joe [Johnson], Al [Horford], all of them. Josh Smith has been a real good mentor to me. You're going to get good advice from T-Mac and Jerry, it's always good to learn something."
Stackhouse has been impressed with the Johnson's willingness to listen and learn.
"From a maturation standpoint he still has some growth. He understands," said Stackhouse. "I think he'll find ways to channel that energy into doing things on the basketball court. The guy has a bright future,."
The channeling appears to have begun.
In the recent three-games-in-three-nights stretch, he played 47 minutes, scoring 16 points and grabbing nine rebounds, with two assists and three steals. He played a total of eight minutes in the previous six games.
In the first game against Miami, he came off the bench with 4:38 left in the third quarter with the Hawks trailing, 68-58. He immediately sparked a 12-0 run that turned that gave Atlanta the lead after three quarters. He had four points, a rebound and a steal in the run. He finished the tri-le-overtime loss with 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting (3-for-5 from the line), with four rebounds before fouling out.
The Hawks didn't win the game, but Johnson won over the TNT crew that included NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who couldn't stop talking about Johnson, the remainder of the game — even when he was on the bench.
Johnson can expect to see less and less of the bench, especially with Tracy McGrady's knee soreness, starting tonight, when the Hawks return to New Jersey for another match-up with New Jersey and Okur. Johnson did not play when New Jersey came to Philips on Dec. 30th.
"I'm going to find some minutes for him, because I love watching him play," said Drew. "I love guys that bring that blue-collar mentality to the gym every night. That was something that I was preaching throughout the season last year, that blue-collar mentality. This kid brings it and I'm very intrigued by him."
The latter should be warned, it may be hard to watch.
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