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Neumann grad Johnson getting an opportunity with Pacers

Indiana Pacers forward Alize Johnson (24) drives to the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. The Celtics defeated the Pacers 135-108. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Alize Johnson yelled at his computer and cell phone quite a lot last winter. The St. John Neumann graduate and second-year Indiana Pacer forward was not experiencing technical difficulties either.

Johnson was watching his younger brothers David and Davion Hill play high school basketball for his alma mater. Johnson is in his comfort zone playing basketball. He helps control the action there, but watching his brothers play, Johnson is helpless.

“You would have thought I was there. I was just going crazy,” Johnson said last Friday while preparing for the NBA restart at the NBA bubble in Orlando. “My mom (Chanelle Johnson) is the reason for all this and she’s just amazing and we all come together to try and get them the right training and right guidance like I had to help them get where they want to go.”

It is a quite a basketball family affair. David earned second team Class A all-state honors for a second season in a row last winter, and Davion was a first teamer as a freshman with Neumann capturing the District 4 championship. Both guards have received multiple Division I offers and are primary reasons Neumann could be a serious state title contender in 2021.

David and Davion have bright futures and their oldest brother has set quite an example on and off the court. All things seem possible after Johnson became the first Lycoming County player to ever be selected in the NBA Draft two years ago.

Now Johnson is eager to pounce on his own potential opportunity as the NBA starts its season again Saturday after suspending it March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson started for the Pacers in their first scrimmage Thursday in Orlando, scoring two points, grabbing four rebounds and adding an assist in 10 minutes, 49 seconds against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Injuries have hit the Pacers hard and star Victor Oladipo might not play again this season. Johnson may have his first significant opportunity to receive extended playing time as the Pacers, currently the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed, resume their playoff push.

“A couple of guys went down so it’s one of those situations where it’s the next man up. You never know when your name is going to be called so you have to be ready,” Johnson said. “With the opportunity presenting itself I just have to stay focused and know what’s going on so when that happen again, I’ll be even more ready.”

It seems like Johnson was born ready. His work ethic was as impressive as his many achievements at Neumann, Frank Phillips Junior College and Missouri State, where he earned all-star honors at every stop. A player who began his scholastic career as a skinny, 5-foot-9 point guard at Neumann now is a strong 6-9 forward who is as versatile as he is talented. A post player who has guard-like skills, Johnson is tough on the boards while running and seeing the court exceptionally well.

Johnson has showed off those skills while dominating in the NBA’s G League, the NBA’s minor league. Johnson has bounced between there and the Pacers his first two seasons, but looks to be a Pacer fixture the rest of this season, one who could become quite valuable.

“They really know what I can bring to the table. They watched me and drafted me and I like them and they like me so it’s just about me improving each and every day and being ready to go when my name is called,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of guys who can play on the floor, so you just have to keep working and stay on the right track and let everything else take care of itself.”

That took on significant meaning when the NBA shut down in mid-March. Nobody knew whether the season would resume and, if so, when. There were plenty of rumors for two months, but nothing confirmed until the league settled on setting up a bubble at Orlando’s Disney’s Wild World of Sports. The bubble is an enclosed environment in which the players are basically cut off from the outside world as they try to stay healthy during the pandemic.

Johnson entered the bubble healthy and in shape. The four-month shutdown was not a vacation. Johnson worked each day, honed his skills, continued conditioning rigorously and felt strong when he played in his first game since March against the Blazers last Thursday.

“For me it wasn’t bad at all because I was still able to work out and get the info I needed. It was difficult not knowing what’s going to happen and wondering if we would get back to the season but you had to work like everything would get rolling again and be ready,” Johnson said. “My team did a really good job staying in shape and doing zoom calls and communicating with each other to make sure everyone was prepared because we know anything can happen.”

Johnson is in a new world now, but one that feels somewhat familiar. It kind of is like college again and the bubble is the new campus. Some players have complained about the bubble, but Johnson is enjoying the experience. There are plenty of outdoor activities, restaurants, a barber shop and even boat rides which help Johnson relax throughout the week.

When Johnson played at Frank Phillips, Wal-Mart was really the only thing around, so he certainly appreciates the things the bubble does offer. The negative is that Johnson is cut off from seeing his family and friends in person until the season ends. But if that is the price to finishing the season, than Johnson gladly will pay it.

“If you really love the game this is what you want to be doing, playing basketball and being able to provide for your family. That is what’s important,” Johnson said. “Me and my teammates are on a mission to win a championship and if you really love the game you really want to be here right now.”

Johnson’s typical day starts with some breakfast, watching Netflix, practicing and/or scrimmaging, going for a boat ride and face timing his family and friends. Then he goes to sleep and repeats the routine again, keeping his eyes focused on the court and an exciting future.

The last few months have been nightmarish at times and tough days are still ahead, but Johnson is back doing what he enjoys most. He has traveled quite a road since he began his basketball journey, but as far as the NBA is concerned, Johnson might just be getting started.

And now the roles are reversed. David and Davion will be watching and Alize will feel more at ease. If he yells now it likely will be from joy.

“It’s a blessing being out there again. I am really enjoying it. We’re excited to get this thing rolling and get the regular season going and get to the playoffs,” Johnson said. “My body is feeling really good. I’m excited for opportunities to happen and hopefully I will get more opportunities to showcase what I can do.”

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