Tyler Johnson remembers signing day like it was yesterday.
He remembers former head coach Kenny Atkinson being in the room with Nets general manager Sean Marks. He remembers then-Brooklyn star Brook Lopez in the room, along with the rest of the Nets training staff that were brought on with Atkinson.
And of course he remembers signing the most lucrative contract in his career: a four-year, $50 million offer sheet to join the Brooklyn Nets as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2016.
“I just felt like they really wanted me,” Johnson said in a Thursday conference call. “That was probably one of the first times in a long time, you can go back to maybe college when you’re getting recruited, that I felt really, really wanted somewhere.”
That somewhere wasn’t only Brooklyn — it was South Beach, where the Heat matched the Nets’ offer. But Miami didn’t want Johnson for long, trading him to Phoenix two seasons later in a cap dump for Ryan Anderson.
Johnson spent a little more than a season in Phoenix and played a total of 44 games for the Suns. But the franchise was transitioning from Igor Kokoskov to Monty Williams as head coach, and Johnson was enduring the least impactful season of his career.
The Suns eventually waived him on Feb. 10.
“I think it took a long time for everyone to get on the same page as far as me with the team and what my role was with the team,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, but fortunately, I’m here. I find myself in a position where I can have a little bit of redemption.”
Redemption is a signature dish on Sean Marks’ menu. He likes players who have a chip on their shoulder.
It’s been a theme in the majority of his signings: D’Angelo Russell ‘wasn’t a leader’ and sold out one of his Lakers teammates. Joe Harris had flamed out in Cleveland. Caris LeVert was always hurt and couldn’t stay on the floor at Michigan. Spencer Dinwiddie’s junior and final season at Colorado was derailed by injury, and even though the Pistons drafted him 38th in 2014, he never got the opportunity to shine buried on the bench behind Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings.
Add Johnson to that list. He’s a career double-digit scorer who averaged less than six points per game on the worst 3-point clip (29%) of his career. What was once viewed as an exorbitant offer in the summer of 2016 has devolved into a rest-of-the-season deal in Brooklyn, ostensibly at the minimum.
“I think at the time you feel like you got the world at your feet and you find as you go on your NBA journey that some places work for you and some places don’t,” Johnson said. “I signed that offer sheet four years ago, so I was ready at that time to possibly become a Brooklyn Net. We were very interested in what was being built over here, so we actually did sign that offer sheet, and I was ecstatic when we got that call to come back over here.”
For Johnson, it was a no-brainer. Yes, COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country, and yes, Johnson has a wife and children to take care of at home. But everyone is healthy, and he knows his children are in the best of hands.
He and his family quarantined themselves immediately once the NBA shut down due to the coronavirus. They didn’t return to the streets when things began to reopen. Instead, they stayed together and stayed indoors, merely as a precaution.
Johnson, like many of his peers, has no reservations about entering the Orlando bubble despite a rise in coronavirus cases that may suggest a second wave of the pandemic.
“I have no doubts or reservations. I was ready to get here and just play basketball,” he said. “It’s the one thing that keeps me completely sane aside from my children and my family, so I was ready to get here as soon as possible.”
The Nets are going to need Johnson’s production.
Brooklyn is shorthanded beyond belief. More rotation players (seven) are sitting out due to injury (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nicolas Claxton) or COVID-19 (Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler) than those who made the trip from Brooklyn to Orlando. Brooklyn also wanted to give minutes to Michael Beasley, but he, too, tested positive for the coronavirus, exited the Orlando bubble and will be replaced, likely by Justin Anderson.
The Nets are going to ask for minutes from both Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa, and neither found themselves in the rotation in the latter stretch of the season. They’re also going to ask for minutes from Johnson, who interim head coach Jacque Vaughn has described on numerous occasions as a competitor.
“Him on both ends of the floor being able to take some of the knowledge that he has from other teams, whether that is cutting at the right time, whether that is multiple efforts on the offensive end, whether that is moving into windows and getting into space to receive the basketball,” he said. “So there are some things that he does extremely well and that are instinctive, and then defensively, being able to fight through screens, being able to guard multiple positions, to be able to come back and help rebound, just because of his toughness. Those things, we’ll definitely depend on both ends of the floor from him.”
Vaughn was one of the assistant coaches in the room four years ago when Johnson signed the offer that nearly landed him in Brooklyn. For the Nets, it’s better late than never, and in this instance, late may be right on time.
“I did meet Tyler and the overall impression was this was a guy we’d love to have with us in our organization,” Vaughn said. “A guy that understands what it means to play and consider more than just himself when he’s on the floor. So he fit into the description of what a Net is. Part of life’s twists and turns, we get him a little later, and (we’re) fortunate to have him on the team now.”
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