Johnson lifting Raps' reserves

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

He is evolving into the Raptors version of the Energizer Bunny.

But, fewer than 24 hours after his best game in five NBA seasons, Amir Johnson got to celebrate with an ice pack and uncertainty.

"Not sure what's wrong. Never had a knee problem. I don't think it's too bad," said Johnson, looking decidedly cheesed off.

Johnson played 29 minutes Sunday, scoring 14 points with eight rebounds, potloads of intensity and two steals. "Dwight Howard stepped on the back of my heel and its really sore on the inside of my knee," said Johnson, who limped off the practice court yesterday.

He did not look happy. In Johnson's case, that state of mind doesn't happen often. He almost always greets people with a grin and approaches the game and his circumstances in it with bouyant optimism.

It is an optimism that has not gone untested.

"I'm the answer to a trivia question," said Johnson, who in 2005 was the last player drafted by an NBA team directly out of high school. Selected by the Pistons, instead of the bright lights of the NBA he spent most of the first two winters in Sioux Falls and Fayatteville, in the development league.

"I never had any second thoughts. Sure, I could've gone to Louisville, I got recruited by Rick Pitino. But I looked at the other guys getting drafted and figured I had the talent to play in the NBA too. Even when they sent me to Fayetteville it didn't really matter because I just wanted to play ... I just love the game."

There were buses instead of planes, old gyms instead of Boston Gardens and games played in front of hundreds rather than thousands. Perhaps it wasn't the role he'd envisioned as a starry-eyed all-America with Westchester High in L.A. but, as he noted: "I was only 18 and I had to learn the NBA style. It was a grown man's world and a huge jump."

He had to relearn the game. In the NBA, he's not the go-to guy. The Raptors don't even have a set play for him.

"There's more to the game than scoring so you set screens, box out, you get rebounds.

"There's more than one way to contribute. I've been in this league for five years and I've learned from guys like (Rasheed) Wallace and (Antonio) McDyess.

"Look where I am now. I'm getting good minutes. I got to play with a great team in Detroit, and I'm taking classes (via computer) from the University of Michigan so its not even like I'm missing school."

He has filled a void with the Raptors left when Reggie Evans was injured.

"I love the amount of energy he brings ... he brings a totally different dynamic to the game when he does come in," said teammate Jarrett Jack.

"He allows us to speed the game up and he's getting a hand on almost every second hand opportunity."

He's getting most of the frontcourt reserve time, more than 17 minutes a game.

"You can't help but feed off (his energy). He makes everyone so accountable because he gives such a honest effort every possession," said coach Jay Triano.

"Sometimes he doesn't get rewarded with the stat but him running to the basket brings all the defence and that's what opens three-point shots for the other guys."

As a free agent next year, his evolution into a bonafide NBA player may be exquisite timing: Just as he had in high school. Some things never change.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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