When James Johnson was first drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft, all anybody wanted to talk about was his background in MMA. Coming out of college, Johnson boasted two second-degree black belts in various martial arts, which suggested a measure of discipline that most organizations would love to have from their young players.
As it turns out, Johnson was no different from any other rookie, by his own admission. It has taken him a long time to discover himself in the NBA, and he recognizes that those early years in Chicago were not his strongest professional moments.
“I was young and immature,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I was just getting out of college, so I was still living the college lifestyle, thinking I can just go out and then come back and just play basketball. I was sadly mistaken. That’s not what it was. It was a business and I didn’t have a business approach to it, so I didn’t really get to enjoy the championship-level training there, the championship-level facilities. Sometimes you take things like that for granted. I sure did.”
That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy his early years in the league. He still looks back on his first Summer League experience as his introduction to an entirely new way of life, the realization of a dream he spent 22 years pursuing.
“I ended up flourishing in that first Summer League,” he said. “We got [to Las Vegas] early, and you know how they bring you up after you get drafted, so I was really grinding hard, training hard. I had a really good experience in Chicago. I loved that organization.”
Somewhere along the way, though, Johnson lost sight of what it meant to be successful in the NBA. He praises his veterans in Chicago as helping him adjust to adult life, but he also admits that their lifestyles are a part of what threw him off course very early in his career.
“I started my ‘Learning How to be a Professional’ process there. Following Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, John Salmons, Kurt Thomas, it was just easy to see what they were doing right,” he said.
“But, at the same time, I didn’t know how to stay in my own lane. You see these guys come to the gym with nice cars or nice bags and you want that. You know that you can ‘afford it,’ but you know maybe you shouldn’t. Next thing you know, you’re in a hole and struggling. I did a lot of quick spending, spending on dumb things, really. You learn a lot from other guys, but you also have to learn on your own from some of the mistakes you make.”
After floating around from Toronto to Sacramento to Atlanta over the course of the next couple couple seasons, Johnson felt the stability he thought he’d always have as a former first-round pick fade. He didn’t even last a month with the Hawks in 2013, and it was that failure in particular that really opened up his eyes to the frailty of his career.
“When I got cut from Atlanta, that was when it really hit me, like, this is not guaranteed forever or even for this year. I was fighting for a spot,” Johnson recalled. “I went to the D-League for eight games and then I was able to go to Memphis. Then I got picked up by Memphis for the rest of the year, and that’s when it really turned around. I have my son, my first son, and I knew I had to do better for him, it was no longer about myself.”
Like it does for a lot of people, the reality of fatherhood really set in a year or so after his son was born. Once the little man started showing signs of a personality, Johnson realized the need to get his act together.
“My son was born in Sacramento and that’s when I was a free agent and didn’t get picked up or anything. That’s when I had to go to Atlanta, and mind you that every time I’m on the court at that time, I’m feeling pressured. I’m not sure about myself. I don’t know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “That was the pressure of, how am I supposed to raise my son, take care of him? Knowing I left college early, knowing that I didn’t have a lot of money in the bank account because my young, dumb self. It was strictly grind mode for your kid and then taking care of yourself after that.”
Johnson faced more instability in his personal life right around that same time, facing serious charges stemming from an incident with his ex-wife back in the summer of 2014. While the charges were later dismissed, he’d eventually get divorced and lose custody of his son, neither of which were easy on him.
Now in Miami, Johnson easily is having his best year as a pro. He recently turned 30 years old and is averaging career-highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and three-point shooting percentage. He’s an integral part of a team that has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises, and he credits the city and the opportunity for his resurgence.
“I went through some trials and tribulations with some of the things that happened with my ex-wife, and my son went with her, lived with her. Now I have half-
custody, and I realize that I’ve taken other things for granted, times I could have played with him, things like that. Miami just brought me back to who I am and what I do it for. Now I’m playing with no pressure, and I’m playing to have fun.”
That word, “fun,” means something very different eight years into his career, though. As a rookie, “fun” meant late nights and parties and a lavish, expensive lifestyle. At age 30, after a frustrating series of personal and professional failures, “fun” means money in the bank, a stable familial situation, and a defined role with a successful organization that needs him.
Not everybody gets the second chances that James Johnson has received, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s appreciative of his.
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