This is the fourth in a 17-part series profiling each player on the Timberwolves’ roster leading up to training camp.
In the few moments he had to observe Chris Johnson last season, Rick Adelman didn’t only see a center getting outmuscled down low and struggling to make a noticeable contribution.
The Timberwolves coach noticed potential somewhere in that top-heavy, 6-foot-11, 210-pound frame, enough for Minnesota to guarantee Johnson a league-minimum salary this year and include him in its frontcourt depth plans.
If he can take advantage of what he calls a progressive offseason, Johnson may yet prove Adelman right.
He hasn’t so far in three years of professional hoops, averaging just 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 8.4 minutes per game in stints with Portland, Boston, New Orleans and Minnesota. An injury-wrecked Timberwolves organization signed him out of the NBA Developmental League in January after waiving him before the season — the third team to cut him loose since he came out of LSU.
But they decided to keep him once their 31-51 campaign came to a close, eventually choosing not to exercise fellow reserve big man Greg Stiemsma’s pricier, $2.7 million option.
Johnson saved the Timberwolves money. Can he save himself from another axing?
2012-13 stats: 3.9 PPG, 2 RPG, 9.5 MPG, 30 GP
2013 salary: $947,9707
Last year: Adelman and Timberwolves fans got a few looks at Johnson’s athleticism when the Timberwolves brought him in on what was originally an emergency basis. He signed a pair of 10-day contracts before inking for the rest of the season.
His best outing came in his Timberwolves debut, when he scored 15 points and pulled down six rebounds in a win against Houston Jan. 19. He also blocked six shots in a March 12 victory over San Antonio — the most rejections for any Minnesota player all season.
But such outings went down as anomalies, as bigger, stronger posts often beat Johnson on both ends of the floor. His skinnier legs didn’t give him a strong enough base, and his core and arm muscles weren’t developed enough to compensate.
If not for injuries to starting center Nikola Pekovic, Johnson likely wouldn’t have received a shot in the Twin Cities in the first place. And while he had a hard time on the whole, he displayed enough flashes to stick around.
With his first full-year deal came a stern command from Adelman: get stronger.
This year: That made Johnson’s offseason workout goals unmistakably clear. He set out immediately to put on 15 pounds of muscle while training in Portland, Ore., this past summer.
By the time he checked in for Minnesota’s summer league mini-camp in July, he’d already met his goal and weighed a huskier 230 pounds.
He carried the added weight well in Las Vegas, averaging 5.7 rebounds and a team-high 1.5 blocks in the Timberwolves’ six games. Quick and decisive footwork out of the pick-and-roll set him up for a few thunderous dunks, and he was able to box out, defend post-ups and slide quickly defensively.
That was the first test. The next comes in training camp against one of the league’s best bigs.
Working against Pekovic in Mankato will reveal just how effectively Johnson can use his newfound weight. There are few better low-post scorers in the NBA than Pekovic, and if Johnson is to find a regular niche here, it’ll be on defense.
He’s not alone in the quest to spell Pekovic.
Minnesota drafted shot-blocking specialist Gorgui Dieng in the first round and picked up sparkplug Ronny Turiaf in free agency. Beating out those two for minutes won’t be easy.
But if Johnson can reach levels somewhat on par with that pair, Minnesota suddenly becomes very deep at center. If he can’t, he’ll probably find himself back in the D-League, or worse, back on the job hunt.
From the front office: “He looks better, and he needs it. I know guys that size, it’s tough to put weight on. It shows how hard he’s been working. Chris is light in his legs, so he’s gonna have some issues like that. But there’s also positives to that; he’s really springy. … He’s gotta put more (weight) on at the top, I think more for the wear and tear, getting hit, upper body, blocking out, things like that.” — assistant coach David Adelman