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NBA AM: Missing the Rookie Experience

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Rookies, especially first round picks, want to come in and set the world on fire the moment they’re drafted. Brice Johnson, one of college basketball’s best players a year ago and a first-round selection of the Los Angeles Clippers this past June, desperately wanted to make his mark in the league on a playoff team, but way back on October 8, 2016, it became very clear that no such thing would occur, at least not this season.

It was on that date Johnson was ruled out indefinitely with a herniated disc in his lower back, and as a result of that injury he wouldn’t make his official NBA debut until February 23, 2017—entirely too late to carve out a significant role on a playoff contender like the Clippers.

“It has sucked,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m coming off of being one of the best players on my team, and this has been my first injury. I’ve never really been hurt, and if I ever did get hurt, I just played through it. I can’t do that anymore, so it’s really frustrating to sit there when you know you could potentially help this team out in a real game, but you can’t because you’re hurt. It’s definitely been difficult.”

Frankly, he wouldn’t have been afforded monster minutes behind Blake Griffin anyway, but to have no option but to sit back and watch isn’t what any player wants.

That said, there are ways to stay sharp, even when a player is sidelined.

“I’ve been able to watch and just see what it takes every day in terms of preparation to be in this league,” Johnson said. “You have to mind your P’s and Q’s when it comes to taking care of your body, recovering after workouts, recovering after games, after lifting, all that different stuff. Eating the right way, putting on the right weight, not putting on a lot of fat on your body, how to stretch a lot. I’ve learned all the recovery tools that you need to be able to last a long time.”

Johnson also has been afforded the opportunity to focus on his new life off the court. Leaving a university can result in some transition for young players, and that’s something Johnson is dealing with right now, as well.

“The NBA is totally different, if only for the fact I don’t have to go to class,” Johnson joked. “I graduated, so I don’t have to worry about going to school anymore. That’s one of the biggest things because when you’re in school and you’re playing basketball, after practice, you have to go to tutoring. And then you have to worry about if you have a test the next day, or you’ve got to do some studying for something else you might have. You have a lot more free time to be able to take care of your body and take care of the things that make you a better player.”

All that extra time has been the biggest adjustment for Johnson, and while a lot of younger players would fill it with nothing but video game and Snapchat, Johnson is trying to make constructive use of his newfound freedom.

“Back in college, we had different engagements to go to, whether they be for a scholarship dinner or tutoring, or you had to go meet a professor cause you can’t meet them during the day because of practice. There are just a lot of different things that factor in to you not being able to do the things that you can do here. That’s why a lot of (former college) guys, you tend to see them look a lot better, or tend to pick up more weight, a lot more good weight. When it comes to the NBA, you have a lot more free time.”

Currently, Johnson is spending some time with the Salt Lake City Stars of the D-League to get himself some minutes and real game action. It’s not what he expected for his rookie season, but he knows his injury put him behind.

“I didn’t expect to get hurt,” he said. “That’s probably the one thing that just threw it off for me, but other than that, [my rookie year] has lived up to the hype. It’s definitely been tough, but hey, I’ve enjoyed the ride. Hopefully I can go out there next season and get a little more action. In the meantime, I’m just taking it day-to-day and trying to get in there as much as I can.”

There’s nothing else he can do other than continue to get healthy. He’ll have his sophomore season to make the impact he envisioned for himself as a rookie. Success doesn’t always come to the younger players as quickly as they’d like.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.