Newfound perspective has helped Johnson become surprise for Grizzlies
FEB 12, 2014 9:50a ET
MEMPHIS -- James Johnson just needed a new perspective.
He got that with a son, and some new ink as the tattooed forward has helped revive the Memphis Grizzlies, and in the process, his own career.
"I've got a different head on my shoulders, got a son, got something to push me to work hard for," Johnson said. "Not just that, just knowing that I got out the league and the little things I was doing was the reason I was out. That can either help you or hurt you and I think this time it helped me."
When Memphis called Johnson up from the D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Dec. 16, it made the Grizzlies Johnson's fourth team since Chicago drafted him 16th overall in 2009 out of Wake Forest. He played in 65 games that year. The next season included a trip to D-League Iowa and a trade to Toronto, where he started 25 games and put up the best numbers of his career.
But following a second straight solid season -- he was one of just seven qualifying NBA players to average at least one block and one steal per game -- the Raptors traded Johnson to the Kings in July 2012, where he stayed through the end of the 2012-13 season. A free agent, he signed with the Hawks in September, only to be waived 21 days later.
"It was certainly a good pickup for us this year," said Memphis coach Dave Joerger.
A fact not to be understated. Johnson was dominating the D-League, avearging 18.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.4 blocks and nearly 50 percent shooting in 10 games, all starts for the Vipers.
In 27 games with Memphis, two starts, Johnson is averaging 8.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and a 19.29 PER, higher than the likes of the Lakers' Pau Gasol (19.05) and Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (18.94).
"I just don't think about the game as much," he said. "Usually I was going out there having too much on my head, thinking about the wrong things. I just needed to be thinking about winning. I know I'm capable and I know I have the ability to play in the league."
Joerger said it's a leveler head and a new approach, but also a leaner build.
"James is really bringing a lot of energy on both ends," starting forward Tayshaun Prince said, "creating with his dribble opportunities, using his big body to get in the lane and using his athleticism."
The athleticism is evident and at this rate, he soon won't be able to walk around Memphis unnoticed -- not with all that artwork.
A tattoo that wraps around Johnson's neck reads "NAYMIN 3.9.13," in honor of his son, who was born six weeks premature and fought for his life in intensive care. It serves as an ink-and-flesh testament to a man and a player reborn.
"Every time I look in the mirror, I want to tell myself and remind myself the reason why I'm doing it," Johnson said. "It just stands for a new head on my shoulders, from the neck up, it's a whole new guy."
Johnson has maintained a fiercely aggressive, yet calmly productive role on a team he has yet to see the full potential of, a team that has again been hit with injuries and is adapting to find the right configuration because of
He has played with multiple lineups, shaken up even more with the latest injuries to point guard Mike Conley and guard Tony Allen. In a lineup with bigs Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Johnson's role, like the rest of the Grizzlies, is to feed the bigs. With a smaller group, he has more freedom to hit the gas.
"For the strengths of our wings, he brings a different element, as far as his level of athleticism," Joerger said. "Leaning up his body the way he has given him mobility to go around people and still finish at the rim with explosion."
Johnson put that ability on display against the Wizards, slithering his 6-foot-9, 248-pound frame through a trio of Wizards and slammed it with two hands, backwards for two of his 13 points. It was his fourth game in double figures in six February contests.
Underscoring the impact Johnson has had on the Grizzlies in his short time on the roster, on Feb. 21 against the Clippers, the team is having what is most likely the league's first-ever neck tattoo giveaway. The first 5,000 fans inside FedExForum will receive fake neck tattoos, that read "GRIZZLIES."
Johnson said he was choked up when told of the promotion, that takes place a day after his 27th birthday. But his blue-collar style caught on quickly in a city that already embraces a hardhat team. Blocking 16 3-pointers is a task that requires a hard hat.
"They just want to see hard work," Johnson said, "people playing with heart and playing for the right reason. And I think that's what I'm doing."
His road has been bumpy, but the new James Johnson seems well-equipped, just like his team that overcame a rough start and is still fighting for a playoff spot -- two games back entering Wednesday's game at Orlando -- and just like his now-healthy baby boy.
"He came in fighting in this world. It's not easy," Johnson said. "Not everything's fair. You've just got to roll with what happens and roll with the punches that are dealt."
Johnson said he has somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 tattoos and may add. But like he now does with his game, he says he seeks ink with a purpose.
"I'm debating," he said. "Just gotta come up with the right reasons. Just don't want to go out there and get something on your body that's permanent."
In two months in Memphis, the castoff from four previous teams has found a home fans hope is as permanent as the ink in his skin.