Four years ago, as we all know, Tyler Johnson signed a $50 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets to be a key piece leading their rebuild.
Things have changed quite a bit since that time. Thanks to the work of Kenny Atkinson and D’Angelo Russell, among others, the Nets are no longer in a rebuild. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the fold, Brooklyn is now a contender-in-waiting.
After a tumultuous tenure in Phoenix, the Johnson finds himself fighting for his NBA livelihood, but for Johnson, with the Nets, so far, so good.
Since arriving in the bubble, Johnson has been impressive and fans are starting to get a glimpse of the value he can bring on the court.
“His play has been pretty good for us,” Jacque Vaughn said Wednesday. “Overall his body feels good, his comfort level on the court at the 1 position [and] at the 2 position — we’ve tried both of those for him — and he has a good feel of how he can help contribute. So looking forward to how he’s going to contribute to the group.”
After sitting for the first scrimmage game against New Orleans, Johnson has poured in 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-8 shooting from behind the arc across two games, including eight points including back-to-back three’s in the last two and a half minutes of the Spurs win.
Operating as a scoring spark plug off the bench, providing defensive tenacity — Johnson’s starting to look like the player that he was in Miami. The one that earned the big deal with the Nets just four years ago.
At just 28 years old, Johnson is still a player with upside — the Nets just need to keep him healthy and get his career back on track. One piece of that, Vaughn noted, was giving him time at the 1 as well as the 2.
The skill-set Johnson brings is appealing. He’s a combo guard in a positive sense, capable of playing with or without the ball. He can make things happen in the pick-and-roll, initiate offense, and is a threat to score from all three levels of the floor.
“He gives you someone who’s pretty steady out there on the floor and has the ability to get to the rim, break down the defense, play with the basketball in his hands, and be a recipient of the basketball,” Vaughn has said.
On the defensive side, Johnson does a great job of fighting over screens to track his defender — a key skill for NBA guards to master with how much pick-and-roll play there is in today’s NBA.
While it’s only two scrimmage games, Johnson’s performance thus far has reaffirmed what some of his most hopeful supporters saw in him — he can still be a valuable piece for an NBA team.
Aside from the his talent, so much of the NBA is about fit and opportunity. After a successful start to his career in Miami with Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and that renowned Heat culture, Johnson was salary dumped to Phoenix — emphasis on dump. The Heat sent Johnson to the Suns for Ryan Anderson, whose contract was a giant albatross. Then, a month later, Johnson underwent knee surgery less than a month later.
Before he was cut by the Suns the first week in February, Johnson had played poorly, but as more than one pundit noted, it was the Suns.
Phoenix has been an organization that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way for much of the last decade. For a role player like Johnson, it was harder to find his niche. Not to mention, he dealt with injuries for just about his entire Suns tenure.
Once in Orlando, Johnson expressed optimism about his fit with his new team.
“That’s the thing. (Vaughn) talks about putting you in spots and just letting you be a basketball player so I’ve been very fortunate to come into an offense where everybody’s looking to get everybody involved,” he said. “I know I feel very confident that I can get in rhythm on this team.”
Continuing to express his love for the Nets read and react egalitarian offense, Johnson added:
“We’re not really out there calling plays to get one person the basketball you know the plays are just to put us in a position to get the defense to react. There were just a couple of times where I felt through the simplicity of the offense and having that spacing that I was able to create angles and get to my spot just throughout the flow of the offense. Which is going to be very beneficial. Looking forward we don’t have to have a call for one person. Everybody’s a threat.”
Johnson is healthy now and ready to prove his worth to an organization that valued him highly. Remember, the Nets didn’t have an open roster spot to sign Johnson. He was not a bubble ‘substitute’ — Brooklyn cut Theo Pinson to open up Johnson’s spot. That should say something — he’s more than a “bubble” band-aid ... and also unlike the substitutes, Johnson has non-Bird Rights, giving the Nets more flexibility.
Looking forward to Nets season, don’t be surprised if Johnson earns his way on a KD/Kyrie led Nets squad as a sixth man. As a versatile, tough third string guard with upside, Johnson has value to next year’s squad. As Caris LeVert pointed out, Johnson has playoff experience with Miami, too.
“(Johnson) has been in the league for a while. He’s experienced, he’s played in the playoffs and things like that. We are going to need him definitely going forward.”
Then, there’s the toughness, mental as well as physical.
On Wednesday, Nothin’ But Nets took a dim view of Johnson, writing that he “appears to be fooling the Nets again,” a reference to the Nets $50 million offer sheet. Johnson reacted on Twitter...
The Hate.....how I’ve missed you ❤️. pic.twitter.com/P6XBnatgMf— Tyler Johnson (@RealTJohnson) July 29, 2020
Asked to explain his rationale for responding, Johnson smiled (behind his mask) and said it wasn’t personal, not a grudge against a particular reporter, but ...
“You look for little things to get you back locked in...You’re aware that there’s doubt in your ability to play the game. If that doesn’t fuel you as a player or as a competitor you’re probably in the wrong occupation.”
It has only been two games, but fans are getting a glimpse of what the Nets organization sees in Johnson. Here’s some advice — hop on the bandwagon now... before it’s too late.