The fourth time Chris Johnson arrived in Portland as a professional, he should have been able to take a deep breath and relax. The game should have slowed down for him. But as a Trail Blazer for the second time in two months, Johnson was racing around going “100 miles an hour” when veteran, but new, Blazer Gerald Wallace stopped him on the court.
“Gerald told me to calm down because I was going 100 miles an hour and he could tell I was looking for stuff to do,” Johnson says, “and there was so much to do in a short time.”
The circumstances had changed dramatically since the first time he’d been at the Trail Blazers’ facility in spring 2010 for a pair of predraft camps. The 6-11, 210-pound forward out of LSU was trying to make an impression that didn’t initially work — he went undrafted.
But like dozens of players who went to the D-League like Johnson, the initial snub meant the road back to the NBA would have to be earned 10 days at a time. He did it three times.
“I heard some bad stuff about the D-League but didn’t know anything about it,” Johnson says after Portland’s shootaround last Monday. “I assumed there was opportunity to get that much closer to the NBA… I gave 100 percent and things worked out just as I dreamed it.”
We bring Johnson’s story because 10-day contracts were able to be signed beginning Feb. 6 and a steady flood of D-Leaguers will soon see time in the league that could end one of two ways: sticking with a club or being sent back down with just a taste of the game’s highest level. Lance Thomas signed the season’s first 10-day contract with New Orleans on Monday. He was the 19th call-up of the season and the 101st player in the NBA who has, at one point, played in the D-League (there have now been 23 call-ups).
Teams get a substitute player in a role they need. Portland called to replace an injured Marcus Camby, and Boston for Kevin Garnett. But what do the players get out of it? Many have given up more lucrative deals to play overseas to stay stateside. It’s a gamble, with an immeasureble payoff. Far-flung locales such as Bismarck, Boise and Bakersfield are just one call away from making an impression in the NBA, simple as that.
“Really my D-League coaches tell the whole team you just can’t go and expect to be a go-to guy,” Johnson says. “You have to go in and know you’re a role player and not even play. You have to do what’s expected of you. Nate (McMillan) told me he wanted energy from me, just coming in with energy, block shots, get rebounds and he doesn’t care if you make mistakes.”
Before Johnson made Portland’s roster in this December’s training camp, he’d earned a spot after two stints with the team through call-ups last season. He signed 10-day contracts last season with Portland on Jan. 24, Boston on Feb. 24 and Portland again on March 14. Before and in-betwee,n he’d played with the Dakota Wizards in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he averaged 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds. The last deal with Portland guaranteed his contract through the end of the season and this year, too.
So though he could have felt a sense of security, the new deal represented to Johnson only a bigger window to make yet another impression.
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Everything seemed to be in flux but his defense. Knowing the teams weren’t about to open up much of the playbook for someone who might only be there for just 10 days, he says he took advice from Camby, Garnett, Ray Allen and LaMarcus Aldridge about how to make the most of his time in uniform.
“Mostly their stuff came on defense from KG — just stay down when a guy goes up for a shot. They know you’re a young guy and will pretty much go for anything.
“Really it’s all about what you want to do on defense and your strategy on defense. If you want to down a screen or show on a certain screen with certain player.
“The last thing you want to do is stick out like a sore thumb.”
After all, a call-up to the league is a reward but it’s hardly hitting it big time. Teams put Johnson up in hotels and had an equipment manager arrange a car service to pick him up and drop him off. In his first two stops he didn’t know until the 10th day whether his contract would be renewed a second time.
“Then I was going back to Bismarck, North Dakota, and at that point I just kept stuff in a suitcase just to be ready,” he says. “I felt like I never unpacked. It was hard at one point.”
The teams apologized for the demotions and the uncertainty, he said, but he respected the decisions. More importantly, he stayed ready.
“I got a taste of the NBA,” Johnson says, “and I knew I wanted to get back.”
It’s a road many more will be traveling soon.
Who would you call up from the D-League?
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