Amir Johnson has been playing professional basketball for eight years now. He is still just 25 years old.
A lot has happened over those years.
Languishing on the bench in Detroit as an 18-year-old, the last high school to NBA player drafted before the age limit came into play, it was Johnson who made the surprising decision to go to his coaching staff with the Pistons and ask to be sent to their D-League affiliate. It isn’t often that an NBAer will ask to be demoted, to give up the chartered flights and cushy traveling details of professional basketball for the minors, but those things were fringe benefits to Johnson. He was concerned with playing basketball, choosing to leave the perks behind until after he’d gotten the reps and in-game experience that he needed.
This ins’t the first time Johnson has taken his career into his own hands, going above and beyond the natural expectations placed upon him. When he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks — where he would remain for just two months of the offseason before coming to Toronto — as a four-year veteran, he asked to participate in summer league, eager to learn his teammates, a new system and coaching staff.
Johnson has always put in the time to get better. He understands, perhaps more than anyone else on the Raptors roster, the importance of each and every possession. He also recognizes the value in working at his craft each day, his career and the current five-year contract he’s playing through, are proof of this.
“That’s what I’ve been learning,” he said. “My father and my mother have been telling me, hard work does pay off. Try to work every day because it matters.”
While he’s known for being an energy guy, running the floor, relentlessly attacking the glass, cleaning up misses, scoring on offensive putbacks, creating extra possessions for his team, through his work and dedication, he’s expanded his game and his role into something much bigger.
On Sunday afternoon against the Orlando Magic, Johnson was a difference-maker in a fourth quarter where Toronto pulled away for victory. Perfect from the floor, making all five of his field goal attempts, including the fifth three-pointer of his career, Johnson made as many field goals as the entire Magic team. He also made all three of his free throw attempts in the quarter and added a rebound, a steal, with zero turnovers. He played the full 12 minutes, his fourth-quarter point total just three less than the Magic could manage collectively in the final frame.
He’s come a long way from those days in Detroit, but he’s not ready to give himself credit for his improvements. Not yet, there’s still more to be done.
“I’m still learning,” he said after the victory against the Magic. “I still have a young career, even though I’m eight years in, I feel like I still have a young career and like the sky is still the limit for me. I try to never look back and I just keep on getting better every year.”
In Detroit, Johnson created his work ethic. In Toronto he has carved out a home.