Johnson starting pro path in NBA Summer League

LAS VEGAS — About two miles east of the Las Vegas Strip, the who’s who of the NBA world gathers on UNLV’s campus in the middle of July for the Las Vegas Summer League. There, casual fans and basketball junkies alike can see everyone from the newest draft picks to veterans looking to scrap their way back onto an NBA team.

Summer League rosters are littered with former college stars and high school recruits once prized struggling to translate that success to the professional level. It can be a humbling experience for some — one minute leading their team in college, the next sitting at the end of the bench and watching time expire without spending a second on the floor.

Alize Johnson is somewhere in the middle, but he might be better equipped than most to carve out a space for himself. Although the Indiana Pacers picked him at No. 50 in June’s NBA Draft, his place with the franchise is far from a sure thing, but if you ask him, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Considering his path to get here, it’s no shock that he seems most comfortable forcing his way into the spotlight rather than having it on him from the start. When asked if he’s nervous about the road in front of him, he doesn’t hesitate before saying, “Not really.”

“I’ve been through this before,” he said.

ALIZE BEING ALIZE:

Following two years at Frank Phillips College in Texas, Johnson transferred to Missouri State. Paul Lusk, then-head coach at Missouri State, expected him to have an impact, but even he was surprised at what Johnson was able to do.

In his first year in Springfield, Johnson averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting almost 50 percent from the floor, finishing the 2016-17 season with 17 double-doubles and Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year honors.

“I don’t think you can predict what he kind of did, in particular in his first year,” said Lusk, now an assistant at Creighton. “He came in and there was a transition period, but he shot the ball better. He worked. I think the pace of the workouts was an adjustment, and he adjusted quickly. He really grew as a player.”

Johnson declared for the NBA Draft that April, but withdrew a few weeks later after receiving feedback from NBA teams. That summer, he earned Most Valuable Player at the Adidas Global Nations Basketball Experience in Houston, Texas, bolstering his profile even higher. Despite earning more notoriety, Johnson continued to impress the coaching staff with his humility.

“He never tries to be somebody that he’s not,” said Missouri State associate head coach Corey Gipson. “Alize is always Alize Johnson. Whether he’s Alize Johnson the Newcomer of the Year, or whether he’s Alize Johnson that just transferred in from Frank Phillips Community College, or whether Alize Johnson that was just picked 50th by the Indiana Pacers, he’s always going to be Alize Johnson, and Alize Johnson is a servant.”

Gipson recalled one particular moment Johnson displayed that servant-like attitude when NBA scouts were calling the school to come and watch him at practice. According to Gipson, Johnson only wanted scouts to come if his teammates could get looked at as well. All Johnson cared about was getting his teammates more exposure.

“He’s the type of guy that whatever situation he’s in now, he doesn’t forget where he comes from,” Gipson said. “That’s part of him being who he is.”

CHANGING THE CULTURE:

Johnson has six younger siblings, and he talks about his family the way you’d expect the oldest sibling to, carrying all the love and burdening responsibility on his broad shoulders, especially one from a small town.

“My family grew up in a different way, drugs and stuff,” Johnson said. “Just being able to change the culture and start having something positive go on in our family is very huge.”

Part of changing that culture is showing them life outside of Williamsport. Lusk said Johnson would have one of his brothers on campus during the summer, bringing him everywhere as he went through workouts and other activities in Springfield.

The message continues to grow as he begins his NBA journey with the Pacers.

On draft night, Johnson enjoyed time with his family in Williamsport. He recalls having an emotional night and having fun with the people he grew up with and walked the streets with.

“I’m trying to make sure they understand what life has in store for us,” he said.

TIME TO GET TO WORK:

When coaches talk about what makes Johnson intriguing as a prospect, they’ll likely mention his versatility and motor. At 6-foot-8, he has the tools to guard multiple positions. Pair that with his rebounding ability and his instincts from playing point guard in high school, and you see the makings of an ideal player in the modern NBA.

“His big thing is getting on the floor and getting minutes,” said Steve Gansey, Indiana’s summer league coach. “The fact that he can play multiple positions is huge. He can play the three, four, even the five in the tournament and even in the G League.”

In Las Vegas, Johnson has flashed his ability to grab a rebound, push the ball up the floor and either attack or find an open teammate. Through three games, Johnson averaged 13.7 points and just over six rebounds per game as he continues to calibrate his game to the professional level.

“I’m a pretty good ball-handler for my height,” Johnson said. “It was easy for me to get out after the rebound and just do what I do.”

Success stories for second-round picks exist but are few and far between. They seem to happen at around the same frequency as players making it after playing at a mid-major college, though those happen much more often than players who didn’t earn a Division 1 offer in high school. Even for lottery picks, the smallest of factors can swing a career in any direction.

The point is: Alize Johnson defied long odds and expectations until now, so it is not unbelievable to think he’ll have a prominent professional career.

“I wouldn’t like it no other way,” Johnson said. “It just gives me an opportunity to shock the world, and I don’t have any problem with that and I don’t have any problem with where I got drafted.

“I’m just ready to get to work.”

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