ALIZE Johnson could dribble and, whoa, could he ever pass. Growing up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he looked at the TV and dreamed of one day distributing the basketball as an NBA point guard.
It may have taken a bit for Johnson to catch on to this, but those around him could see his future in basketball — if there was to be one — probably wasn’t going to be as a guard.
Johnson, who had started his career at St. John Neumann High School as a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, finished it as a 6-foot-9 senior forward, and the state’s Mr. Basketball for a 30-1 team that reached the tournament semifinals.
His growth spurt was so pronounced that one day, his mother, Chanelle, came in to the house and didn’t recognize him.
“She said I was a burglar,” said Johnson, a rookie second-round draft pick of the Indiana Pacers, who has spent much of the season with the Mad Ants. “I don’t believe the story. But if that’s what happened, I’m just going to go with it.”
Johnson came in Saturday (Sunday, Manila time) averaging 19 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals for the Mad Ants, then almost put himself into the franchise record books at the G League Winter Showcase at Las Vegas. In a 100-97 victory over the South Bay Lakers, Johnson made 6 of 15 shots for 16 points, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and his 22 rebounds were two short of Rob Kurz’s franchise record. (Edmond Sumner led the Mad Ants with 23 points Saturday.)
Johnson, who has 10 double-doubles in 12 G League games, takes pride in his ability to bring energy to both ends of the court, and to play with a “high motor” that gets his teammates going and allows him to reel in those rebounds.
But he still has a guard’s mentality.
“That was the dream — to be a point guard in the NBA — but then I grew to 6-9 and now I’m a power forward,” said Johnson, 22, who has appeared in four games for the Pacers, making 1 of 3 shots for two points with four rebounds over 12 minutes.
In the Mad Ants’ 126-110 victory over Rio Grande Valley at Memorial Coliseum on Monday, Johnson had a brilliant no-look, behind-the-back pass from the paint to Stephan Hicks for a 3-pointer in the corner.
“That’s one of my guard skills,” Johnson said. “Go look at some of my videos from back in the day. I’ve done that before.”
After high school, Johnson played at Frank Phillips junior college in Borger, Texas, before going to Missouri State, where he averaged 15 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season, parlaying his terrific senior season into an NBA draft pick.
Cognizant that his road to the professional basketball has been unconventional, he feels like he’s playing for a lot of small-town people and family members.
“I have six siblings back at home and I’m playing for them every day, as well as my city, and the Pacers’ organization, and I’m going to go out there and give it my all every night,” Johnson said. “I’m just blessed to be around a great group of guys and a great coaching staff.”
Johnson said there are other people from Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, who are looking up to him, and Johnson stays in touch with many and feels he has to succeed so they know they can, too.
“That’s one of the things for me; I’m going out there and playing for them because there’s a lot more talent out there ... and I want them to get recognized as well,” Johnson said.
Johnson is expected to rejoin the Pacers, perhaps as soon as today, but he prides himself on doing the blue-collar work — such as rebounding or shot-blocking — as much as the flashy passing or shooting he’s brought to the Mad Ants this season.
“Early on, I was doing guard things, like dribbling and passing. Those things kind of stuck with me,” he said. “But I grew and I wanted to add to my game, so I started rebounding. I’ve got a motor going and I’ve been blessed with my gifts and I want to keep them going, too.”