To say that Ivan Johnson took an unconventional path to the NBA is a bit of an understatement. Johnson, a 27-year-old rookie forward for the Atlanta Hawks has been one of the most unlikely success stories of the first month of the 2011-12 NBA season.
In 11 games with the Hawks, Johnson is averaging 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 14 minutes per game. Johnson emerged from relative obscurity with a 13-point (on 5-7 shooting), 4 rebound performance in 21 minutes in a 116-109 triple-overtime loss against the Miami Heat that was broadcast nationally on TNT. That performance earned him praise from Charles Barkley, had him trending on Twitter, and led to Grantland’s Rembert Browne suggesting Johnson could challenge Metta World Peace for the 2011-12 title of the NBA’s “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Less than two weeks later, Johnson recorded his first NBA double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) in 26 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves and hit two clutch free throws with less than 5 seconds on the clock to give the Hawks the 93-91 victory. A day later, in an article by Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Johnson tossed his name in the hat for NBA quote of the year: “My thing is, I don’t really watch basketball so I don’t know who anybody is,” Johnson said. “So when I match up against them, they are a regular player. I know the major players like LeBron [James], Kobe [Bryant], [Dwyane] Wade but all the extra ones I don’t know. Even if I did know them, I’m not going to be afraid. We are playing basketball.” The quote also earned Johnson a second post from Browne over at Grantland, musing about the possibilities of what’s next from Johnson.
So, who is Ivan Johnson? And why is he just now breaking into the NBA at age 27?
Late bloomer is not the right label for Johnson. His inability to make an NBA roster was not for a lack of talent. Anyone who watched him in the NBA Development League last season with the Erie BayHawks knew that Johnson had NBA-ready skills.He was a 1st-Team All-D-League performer last season. He finished second in the league in scoring at 22.6 points per game, tied for second in steals with 88, and seventh in total rebounds with 383 (7.8 per game). For the advanced metrics fans, Johnson ranked first in the D-League in Player Efficiency Rating at 24.9 and Win Shares at 6.6. Yet Johnson was not among the 27 D-League call-ups made during the 2011-12 season.
At 6’8″ tall and 230 pounds, he could be considered a bit of a tweener—an inch or two shy of ideal for a power forward without the quickness of a small forward. But Johnson uses his body very well and plays bigger than 6’8″. As a member of the BayHawks, he repeatedly demonstrated his versatility on offense as someone able to score on the block, off the dribble from the mid post or as a mid-range jump shooter. He’s also a physical defender and solid rebounder. Basketball ability was not preventing Johnson from earning a shot in the NBA. It was his basketball past, which had taken him all over the world without much to show for it.
As early as college, Johnson had trouble sticking in one place for too long. Listed from Cal State San Bernardino, Johnson also had brief stops at the University of Oregon, Los Angeles Southwest Junior College, and Cisco Junior College in Texas. He then entered the D-League, splitting the 2007-08 season between Anaheim and Rio Grande Valley, averaging a modest 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds in 28.9 minutes per game. Next up was Korea. That ended with a lifetime ban for an obscene gesture he made at a referee. Back in the U.S., Johnson re-entered the D-League and was drafted in the first round of the 2010 D-League Draft by the BayHawks.
Though his play was superb as mentioned earlier, his attitude remained a concern. Tying for the lead league in personal fouls with 191 is one thing, but leading the league in technical fouls is a definite problem as Johnson did, earning 23 last year with the BayHawks, which was nearly twice as many as any other D-League player. The technical foul problems, at least in part, also led to Johnson coming off the bench for the BayHawks last season. Still, despite the issues with the officials, his strong play on the court persisted.
In December of 2011, Atlanta dared to be the team to give Johnson a shot and signed him as a free agent. When training camp finally opened after the NBA lockout ended, Johnson’s name was an afterthought on the Hawks’ training camp roster that featured a lot of big names like Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and even the newly acquired Tracy McGrady. But Johnson impressed coaches enough to earn a roster spot. Then he impressed Coach Larry Drew enough to earn a few minutes of game time. And he’s used those minutes to continue to impress observers around the league.
It’s worth noting that his lone technical foul thus far this season, which was dished out against New Jersey on December 27 was rescinded by the NBA during the league review process. If Johnson can continue to produce on the court while also avoiding the issues that have plagued him in the past—most notably his temper—perhaps Atlanta may finally be the place capable of keeping Johnson in place for the long haul.