This time Tyler Johnson is headed a bit farther north. For that, he is appreciative, his itinerary this time dropping him off in Minneapolis for the start of the Miami Heat‘s two-game trip that opens Thursday.
Now everything’s changed, with Johnson finding himself with a consistent rotation role with the Heat, as a backcourt energizer off the bench.
“I’m very aware of where I was at last year and I think that I benefited actually a lot from being down there,” said Johnson, who went undrafted out of Fresno State in 2014.
With players cut from this year’s training camp now getting seasoning of their own in the Skyforce’s training camp, Johnson stands as an example of the D-League’s possibilities.
“He’s the epitome of coming in every day with an approach to get better,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And that’s what’s happened. It hasn’t been overnight. It’s been a year and change of consistent, focused work every single day, in our D-League, in our training camps, between practices, and earned the confidence of his coaching staff and, more important, his teammates.
“When he gets his number called he makes the most of his opportunity, without having expectations or entitlement from me, even though you can make a case that he’s earned it.”
When Johnson was released after last year’s training camp, he became eligible to be signed by any other NBA team. For the Heat, it is the delicate dance of developing a player with their D-League team while not sacrificing an NBA-level roster spot.
The gamble paid off when Johnson returned on a pair of 10-day contracts in January before being signed for the season in February.
“We could have lost Tyler last year,” Spoelstra acknowledged. “Yeah, it worked out perfectly, but that took everything bouncing in the right direction for that to happen,”
Now he’s playing as a part of a youthful bench boost with first-round pick Justise Winslow.
“When I go in I’m not looking to score,” he said. “We’ve got guys who can score. I’m just looking to play defense and provide a spark and get things going. I usually guard the point or a scoring two. I just come in and try to play as hard as I can and hope things work out.”
The irony is that among those who have assisted Johnson in a shift to a rotation role is backup point guard Mario Chalmers, a player whose minutes Johnson could claim if Chalmers is dealt in a tax-clearing move.
“Mario’s been helping me with slowing up the pace sometimes, but then other times bringing it up and attacking and try to create openings for my teammates,” Johnson said.
Part of the equation is also appreciating limitations. Johnson does. He is confident he can boost the Heat’s 3-point percentage, but also doesn’t see himself as a pure shooter.
“For me,” he said, “I’m more of a spot shooter. When my feet are moving, I’ll tend to look to attack a little bit more. But if I’m spotted up and I feel like I’m in rhythm, nine times out of 10, I’m going to take that.
“I would rather be spotted up and take a three than be on the move, like on a pull or something and have my feet moving and then take a three. So I shoot ’em when I feel comfortable.”
During summer league and training camp, Johnson mostly was featured at point guard Early in this season, he primarily has been cast at shooting guard. If Chalmers is dealt, having been linked to trade talks with the Memphis Grizzlies, Johnson’s role could change again.
And that brings it back to the time in Sioux Falls, where he was asked to do everything so he eventually could do anything on the NBA level.
“Now,” Spoelstra said, “he’s just thinking five-man basketball, ‘OK, how do I help this possession?’ Defensively, he can play either position. What guys like Tyler do is they make you play him.”