Last week when Armon Johnson signed in Kazakhstan with BC Astana, I could only think of three things: Borat jokes, Johnson's ear-to-ear signature smile and some long D-League bus rides between North Dakota and South Dakota.
After spending nine years covering the NBA between the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Portland Trail Blazers and long before making the move closer to the game as a novice scout in Pro-A Germany, I spent many seasons chatting up rookies across the league as they experienced their basketball baptism. It was easy to tell the guys that cherished every minute of the journey and gave thanks every step of the way and those, who for some reason, donned daily armor and an attitude of entitlement.
Those are usually the young ones that forget tomorrow isn't promised in the NBA.
For Johnson -- whom the Blazers selected in the second round out of Nevada as the 34th overall pick in 2010 -- the guy is as egoless and authentic as they come. Shoots straight in a jovial way. Thankfully in Portland, Johnson's rookie season was a refreshing vibe, but reality hit home that year too for the lefty point guard. Those around Rip City know the story all too well. Altogether now: Nate McMillan simply isn't the type of coach that plays rookie point guards. Both Taurean Green and Sergio Rodriguez can testify. So when Johnson appeared in 38 games and averaged less than 8 minutes per game (2.9 points 1.2 assist, 1 turnover, 45% FG, 42% 3-pt.) in those contests, it wasn't a shocker by any means. But Johnson didn't know that. The kid did what any kid would do in that situation. When Johnson's number was called he was all about getting his shots up, taking risks, trying to create away to get himself more playing time sitting behind Andre Miller and Patty Mills.
That's not where the story ends. In fact, the 2010-11 season was the tale of two seasons for Johnson and provided him the first hand opportunity at a glimpse into his future.
It probably wasn't what he wanted to see.
In late January, 2011, Portland assigned Johnson to the D-League with the Idaho Stampede. Up to that point in the Blazers still young season, he appeared in 28 games averaging 3.1 points, 1.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 8.1 minutes and even featured a breakout game against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Johnson finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. That was earlier in the season in November and two months later Johnson found himself sharing a team bus with former NBA veteran Antoine Walker. The one common bond between them besides representing the Stampede: both guys wanted to get back to the NBA ASAP.
One made it back.
The other never did.
Johnson's stint in the D-League lasted about a month in Idaho. In nine games (one start) he averaged 18.2 points (59.7% FG), 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 27.6 minutes per game and in five of those games, Johnson put up more than 20 points per contest. And for as much as the D-League gets knocked for their actual "development", the floor time did Johnson wonders for his game and even his personal confidence that had been slightly rattled falling out of McMillan's favor.
I will never forget a talk Johnson and I had after a home game at the Rose Garden later that March. It was soon after he'd returned from playing in Boise and I was curious to know how that whole experience impacted him both as a person and a player -- because you just know there are some rookies who confuse development with a demotion and end up hurting themselves in the end. Johnson said that while he was on a six hour bus ride from North Dakota to South Dakota, that's when it really hit him that he wasn't in the NBA anymore. No more world class service. No more having someone carry your bags. No more plush travel and living accommodations.
The one word he kept repeating: "humbling".
Instead of growing frustrated by the situation, Johnson used the time wisely. He leaned on Walker's every word. What to do in this game. What not to do in this game. Walker told Johnson to slow down. Slow down and enjoy the game.
Then there was the game film. It became Johnson's main hobby that season -- breaking down his game from those 9 games in the D-league. Even after returning to Portland and barely sniffing the floor behind Miller and Mills, Johnson kept himself motivated by watching his D-League highlights -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- over and over every day, analyzing aspects of his game where he excelled and yes, slowed down. If he wasn't playing in Portland, Johnson at least wanted to be thinking the game and be ready when his number was called.
If his number was called.
In early January, 2012, Johnson got the call again. The NBA lockout had resolved and business was picking up again, which for Johnson meant another trip from Portland to Boise (this time with Luke Babbitt) as McMillan attempted to trim down his backcourt. Later that month Johnson was recalled after six games with the Stampede, where he averaged 11 points, 6.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
A month later, Johnson was out of work.
It was a time when Portland was toying with their front court and brought back fan favorite and free agent center Joel Przybilla. What transpired next for Johnson was about nine month shuffle of being waived, signing a 10-day contract with New Jersey, finishing out a season with the Nets and then starting all over again trying to figure out how long the NBA window will remain open. In New Jersey, Johnson appeared in 8 games averaged 5.6 points and 1.4 assists in 14.9 minutes per game, before eventually latching on with the Detroit Pistons during summer league. Instead of sticking with Detroit though, Johnson signed with the Orlando Magic to round out their preseason roster. That two- month gig only lead Johnson back to the hoops career drawing board after he was waived by the Magic in October.
For someone born and raised in Chicago, attended college in Reno and bounced around the NBA from Portland, to New Jersey, to Detroit to Orlando, playing for a team in Kazakhstan had to be the furthest notion from Johnson's mind when considering his overseas options.
Central Asia and Eastern Europe probably doesn't scream dream situation for some players, but for Johnson playing in Kazakhstan's capital city of Astana (8-0 in the VTB United League) is exactly what the young point guard needs to establish his overseas brand. Because while making it back to the NBA undoubtedly is Johnson's end goal, assimilating to the international game and putting up dominate numbers with significant playing time is equally beneficial at this stage of his infant pro career.
That's how the successful road is paved around bigger leagues and clubs around Europe.
Put it this way: Johnson must treat this opportunity with the same mind set he did while down in the D-League his first time around. Take advantage of the minutes. Take care of the ball. Deliver. Lead. Talk on the floor. Set guys up. Eat up the game film for breakfast, lunch and dinner knowing game day typically comes once or twice a week. Grow. Get better. Repeat. And most of all, soak up the new culture going on around you.
The NBA window isn't the only one quick to close.
Yes, this will be tough. But it can also turn into a life long blessing.
On Wednesday, Johnson trained with BC Astana for his first time since arriving overesas. He became acquainted with another former NBA teammate in Rawle Marshall (Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers), as the team prepares to take on BC Kalev/Cramo Tallinn of Estonia, who are led by another NBA guard, Keith McLeod (Minnesota, Utah, Golden State, Indiana).
Johnson's first game overseas comes next Wednesday.
And it will be an experience he will never forget.