It’s been quite the journey for Alize Johnson, who continues to shine for the Nets.
Johnson has played his four collegiate years at Frank Phillips and Missouri State before becoming a journeyman in the NBA, splitting his three-year career between the Indiana Pacers and their G League affiliate — the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — and the Toronto Raptors G League affiliate — the Raptors 905 — before joining the Nets. The journey, as it does with every player, speaks for itself but Johnson wants and has always wanted more. Now, with the Nets, he’s getting that chance through skills of course but also through sheer will. continues He wants everyone to know he belongs in the NBA.
After missing the previous three games to the league’s health and safety protocols, Johnson made a statement — maybe mixed in with a little revenge — against the team that drafted him 50th overall back in 2018.
Although only playing in 31 games over the two-year span with Indiana, Johnson didn’t think he got the chance he deserve and so the spark to his fire was decidedly lit.
“I was really excited to play, get back to where it all started. I felt it when I was coming on the plane and the energy was there from the time I walked in the building,” Johnson said. “[Coach] Nash threw me out there and gave me an opportunity, so I definitely wanted to go out there and take advantage of it.”
“When I was coming on the plane, I was thinking about all the time I spent here. To get back here and see everybody and get an opportunity to play — knowing I didn’t really play much when I was here -- I was ready to go out there and prove to everybody that I belong in the NBA. I want to stay here for a long time.”
Kevin Durant, who has had his fair share of return games against former teams in their home arenas, knows the feeling. He sensed Johnson’s desire to make a statement with the opportunity the game granted. The Nets superstar was clearly impressed with his gritty effort Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. There were approximately 4,500 fans in attendance and more than a few must have wondered afterwards how their team had let the 6’8” Swiss Army Knife go.
“I can tell coming back to Indiana, a place that drafted him, he wanted to come out here and play well. Being away from the team for a few days, you can tell that was on his mind a bit,” Durant said. “It was a good way to welcome him back to the group. 20/20 off the bench. He was just everywhere. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, pushing the pace.”
There’s no better way to solidify that claim than stuffing the stat sheet with a surprising 20-point, 21-rebound game off the bench. Steve Nash threw his 25-year-old forward out there with 6:55 remaining in the first and Johnson was on his quest to snag every rebound in sight, swooping in from difficult angles and crowded spaces, becoming the third Net in history to have a 20/20 game off the bench ... and the first in the NBA since the 2018-19 season (Enes Kanter).
“I try to time where the ball is going to land when it comes off the rim. I try to be there every time and that’s something I’ve been working on,” Johnson said on his rebounding strategy . “Sometimes they fall my way. Sometimes they don’t but, just always thinking about when that ball goes up in the air, going after it, and not worrying about where my other defenders are going to be. Just going up there and getting it with as much effort as I can.”
If the rebounds weren’t impressive enough, Johnson shot 7-of-12 from the field, swiped two steals and dished three of the Nets 35 assists in Thursday’s win, leaving his head coach amazed postgame.
“Incredible stat line. He plays with energy and brings it every night. It’s impressive he can collect that many rebounds and score in a role where we don’t run anything for him,” Nash said with a sly smile. “Incredible performance and really happy for him given he wasn’t even in the league a month ago or so. Here he is putting up incredible stat lines.”
Johnson’s stellar performance Thursday will push his case to see playoff minutes starting next month. Brooklyn has nine games remaining in the regular season and come playoffs, the rotations will be cemented and likely limited to an eight-to-nine man grouping. Of course, in a season like no other, anything can happen.
“It’s nice because we have the ‘stay-ready group.’ We try to go out there and every time we get an opportunity, make the most of it. For me, it’s good reps. You never know when I might get out there. I might get used in the playoffs. I might not,” Johnson said. “Whenever they call my name and every time they call my name, I’ll be ready to play.”
Despite the uncertainty of whether Johnson will make the cut and be an established member of the Nets rotation when the games matter most, he continues to pave his trail of belonging in the league. KD knows.
“I love everything about Alize. Who he is as a person, his approach to the game, his work ethic, his story, his journey - everything about him. I want to see him do well out there,” Durant said. “I’m very excited for Alize. I’m glad he’s a part of our team. I want him to continue to build on this.”
Of course, Johnson could’ve been picked up by any NBA team during or after the G League season that concluded back in March. Johnson averaged a double-double of 16.6 points and 13.3 rebounds to go along with 4.2 assists and 1.3 steals this season and in fact, the Magic, Raptors, Rockets, Spurs and Suns (but not the Paceers) all had interest, according to The Ringer. But the Nets made the first move and he was thrilled to join a championship contender.
Now, he’s got a three-year, $4.1 million deal with Brooklyn. Not a lot of it is guaranteed, but if he continues to produce at this level, who’s going to tell him he isn’t going to make it?