Chief Johnson felt hot, either from the warmth of the room or the heaviness of the moment. He took off his shirt.
During NBA draft night in 2005, Johnson remained tense as each hourly pick passed by. Instead of planning for her prom or making a final decision about her college destination, 18-year-old Johnson was staring at the television screen at her aunt’s house when her professional future was at stake.
The NBA draft turned into a commercial as it drew to a close. At the bottom of the television screen was a continuous strip of conscripts’ names. Then someone screamed.
The Detroit Pistons had selected Johnson from Westchester High School in Los Angeles, fifth from the bottom, 56th overall.
The room filled with Johnson’s relatives and friends was blown up. “We had horns and everything,” Johnson recalled. She tried to stand up, but found her back glued to the plastic and suffocated her aunt’s sofa.
Johnson’s journey began, his dream fast advancing. But what if the Pistons had beaten his hometown Lakers in the championship? Detroit coach Larry Brown was on the phone and invited Johnson to Detroit. Just a few months ago, Johnson had committed to playing for the University of Louisville as he longed to experience college life outside of Southern California.
Next, Johnson met his colleagues at the McDonald’s All-American Game, a special exhibit for the nation’s top high school players. The top players have admitted to one another that they plan to skip college for the NBA, following the groundbreaking footsteps of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard.
The NBA has closed its doors to high school players, which require players eligible for the draft to be at least 19 years old and removed from high school for at least one year, following Johnson, who was the last high school player to be drafted before a new collective bargaining rule went into effect. school.
“I hope this is in ‘Jeopardy!’ someday,” said Johnson, now 34, with a smile.
The sun is setting on the careers of players preparing for the pros who have both revolutionized and modernized the NBA. 37-year-old James remains the focus of the Lakers and is joined by Howard from the bench. Lou Williams of Atlanta is the other active NBA player who joined the league from high school before the rule changed.
“If you are ready and have the opportunity to become a professional, why not?” said Johnson.
When one door closes, another opens – or a few make.
A variety of destinations are offered to today’s top high school basketball players for a gap year on their way to NBA riches and fame. They may choose the traditional college route in hopes of an NCAA tournament run that raises their status. They can play professionally abroad. LaMelo Ball He did it before the Charlotte Hornets drafted him in 2020.
Or, in a recent change, they could join local professional leagues like the Atlanta-based Overtime Elite, or a specialized team like Ignite, which incubates high school phenomena in the NBA’s developmental G League and pays some of the best players what they’ve ever paid. $1 million in two seasons Ignite also has a handful of veteran players like Johnson, who is a good complement to basketball and life experience for the budding stars out of high school.
“The NBA is a privilege,” said Jason Hart, head coach of Ignite, who played four seasons in Syracuse. “It’s not a right. We want them to appreciate every day while you’re here on this journey, because it certainly won’t last forever.”
In its second season, The Ignite was completed by veteran players such as Johnson, Pooh Jeter, and CJ Miles, who was selected from high school to the NBA with Johnson in 2005.
Ignite offers talented youngsters an introduction to the circadian rhythm of the NBA, without question, like when Johnson joined the league.
“This G League team actually helps prepare these guys to play pro in the first place, which we didn’t have,” Johnson said. “We are thrown into the fire and they learn and leave, which is ridiculous. They may have the NBA schedule where you need to wake up, travel and shoot.”
When Johnson joined the NBA, players could put themselves at the mercy of a team’s development commitment or lack thereof.
The Chicago Bulls, for example, took big boys Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry out of high school in 2001, hoping they’d save the franchise from its post-Michael Jordan hangover. The Bulls offered time to play, but little improvement or direction in acquiring life skills.
In Detroit, Johnson found the opposite. He joined a 30-year-old championship-level team made up of his parents and established post players like Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, and Antonio McDyess.
Johnson said the Pistons helped him learn life skills by helping him with the apartment hunt, teaching him how to manage a bank account, and helping him get his driver’s license.
It took a few minutes on the field, but he was willing and ready to listen and work, the individual effort added to the momentum of the whole team. It was a quality Johnson developed as a teenager when he joined his original love of sport, athletics.
Johnson took some online classes at the University of Michigan, but mostly saw his time in Detroit as a college experience. He volunteered to leave the NBA for duties in the G League, later known as the NBA Development League or D League. Grand Rapids, Mich. and Sioux Falls, with the lower-level teams in SD, Texas Roadhouse and biscuits came to know and could count on sustained game time.
A strong work ethic has contributed to Johnson’s prolific 14-year NBA career in Detroit, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia as a reliable and steady influence.
Johnson joined Ignite last season with flashing requests to extend his acting career.
The younger players Johnson found called him with questions. He was surprised to find how easily he had the answers, such as how to handle family responsibilities, how to establish routines, and how to dress.
“And if you get it wrong, you’ll be like, ‘I didn’t brush my teeth counterclockwise,’ or something like that,” Johnson said. “A routine that keeps your mind focused on the task is very helpful – knowing what to do in the morning to keep your momentum going.”
Johnson was overjoyed on draft night in August when NBA teams selected Ignite players like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga.
Johnson always thought he could become a player development coach if he wanted to. He is now immersed in the strategy behind the game and envisions a second career in coaching.
“It’s like leaning towards the coaching part of that passion when you’re young and hungry to continue learning,” he said.
Johnson easily recognizes himself in the eyes of players such as: Scott Henderson, who chose Ignite for two more years in high school.
Whenever Henderson makes a mistake on the pitch, he rushes to talk to Johnson so it doesn’t happen again.
“It just feels like a mirror,” Henderson said. “He knows what we’re going through right now. He knows our thought process on everything.”
Most players are used to working hard. This part is easy for anyone serious about the game. This leap is more of a mental leap than anything else, and Johnson is the positive voice in the ears of the Ignite players, telling them to keep going.
NBA entry is no longer a straight line for its young players.
Johnson went full circle to make this transition as easy as possible for others.
“They’re actually in line with what I had to say,” Johnson said. “This changed my mind about wanting to give back. When I saw these guys drafted last year, I felt like I had won a championship.”