We’ve heard about gambling on planes. We’ve caught wind of high-stakes card games. But when it comes to wagering among NBA players, this one’s a little different.
Trail Blazers rookie Armon Johnson is a little fish in a big pond trying to do big things in little windows. A backup point guard when the season began, the University of Nevada product rarely sees court time these days and never logs significant minutes.
So when he does get the opportunity to showcase his talent, as he did against Cleveland on Thursday, he tries to make the most of it.
His teammates do, too.
“Guys have little side bets going on how many shots he’s going to put up,” Blazers center Marcus Camby said. “But guys respect him because he’s always the first one in the gym, always the last one to leave, and is always asking questions.”
It’s been an undulating season for Johnson, who began the year as a regular in the rotation only to be relegated to the bench and temporarily sent to the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League. But he’s back in Portland now, and after edging out Blazers assistant coach Buck Williams in a game of H-O-R-S-E on Saturday, took some time to chat about his time with the Blazers, his role, and of course, his trigger-happy shooting hand.
Columbian: You’ve had your share of highs and lows over the past few months. How would you describe your rookie season so far?
Johnson: Amazing. This is where amazing happens, man, you didn’t know? I’ve seen some of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen; things I didn’t have the opportunity to see before. And now, better things keep coming. I got into the game the other day and it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulder. Just playing in front of the crowd. I felt like they haven’t seen me in a long time.
Columbian: You took five shots in three minutes against the Cavs, and when Nate (McMillan) was asked about it after the game, he smiled and said “Armon’s going to get up shots.” Are you trying to prove something out there, or are you just an aggressive player?
Johnson: Man, I’ve been sitting on the bench the whole game! What you want me to do, go in there and pass it around? I know Coach didn’t put me in to just go in there and go through the motions, he wanted me to be productive. The last time I went into the game against Indiana, I didn’t take any shots, I just passed it. And when I went to the bench and asked him what he saw, he said he wanted me to be aggressive. I remembered that when I went into the game the other day. I didn’t want that to happen again.
Columbian: It’s gotta be tough when you’ve spent your whole life as the guy, or as one of two guys, and all of a sudden experience what it’s like to be the scrub, for lack of a better word, or the guy coming off the bench. …
Johnson: The rookie, man. That’s what you should call it — the rookie, because I ain’t no scrub. And I’m not just the guy coming off the bench either. I feel like right now, the rotation the team has, that’s working for us, and I’m excited about that. I’m not even upset about that. That’s something that’s better for the team right now. Patty (Mills) is playing very well. Andre (Miller) is playing very well. I’m here to support them. I’m not here to go against them. I’m on their team. It’s a positive thing for the team right now. But I know that I’m helping them get better in practice every day, I’m bringing it. I help them ramp up the intensity every day. That’s enough for me right now.
Columbian: Still, when you lost your spot earlier in the season, that couldn’t have been an easy adjustment.
Johnson: Yeah, it was very tough. The first few games where I didn’t have my backup role, I was a little hurt. I’m a young guy who didn’t know how to deal with it because it had never happened to me. But I started talking to the important people in my life, and they let me know that I needed to embrace it and be positive about it, don’t look at it as a negative thing, it’s just what the team needs right now, and that was OK with me. (Pause) That phone records all of this?
Johnson (into phone): Yay yay!
Columbian: Magic Johnson said that the greatest play he’s ever seen came in a Dream Team practice, when Michael Jordan threw down some ridiculous dunk during a scrimmage. Do you have any legendary practice moments?
Johnson: I dunk on them all the time. I dunk on guys you don’t expect me to dunk on. I can’t tell you who. I don’t want to put them out there. I’m still just a rookie, man.
Columbian: So you’ll tell us next year?
Johnson: Alright. I’ll have some more people under my belt next year.
Columbian: You’re in here after practice all the time now working on various aspects of your game. Did your experience in the D League change your work ethic?
Johnson: Yeah, it’s definitely changed, because I know what it’s like to go down to that level and I never want it to happen again. Anything I can do. Any way I can try and get better and let the coaches know I’m getting better. Even if nobody’s watching. Like right now, if my knee wasn’t hurting, I’d be out there. Even when nobody’s watching — it’s those little things that drove me to get better when I came back.
Columbian: You and Luke (Babbitt) have had very similar paths — not just coming out of Nevada, but being rookies who have spent some time in the D League. Are you two calling each other a lot to share your experiences?
Johnson: I keep in very close touch with him while he’s down there because I know how it feels when you’re down there and nobody’s talking to. You feel like you’re neglected almost. So I definitely make sure I keep in touch with him. We talk about how it is down there and what we can do to help each other get better, or what’s going on up here. I give him the updates because I wanted to know what was going on when I was down there. It’s something that you don’t really understand. You don’t really understand.
Columbian: Is Luke your best friend up here?
Johnson: My best friend is basketball.
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org