By Scott Stanchak, NBA.com
It’s impossible to know where Amir Johnson would be today had he chosen a college career over the NBA. Every now and then though, even he wonders where he’d been in life. That decision, however, is one no 18-year-old will ever have to make again.
Shortly after Johnson was taken by the Detroit Pistons with the 56th pick of the 2005 Draft, the league tweaked its rules. Eligible players must now be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school. The new guidelines mean Johnson will forever be a part of NBA trivia as the last high school player selected in the annual event.
Today, Johnson is a 23-year-old, six-year veteran rather than a sophomore. He’s since left Detroit and found a home with the Toronto Raptors, who signed the 6-foot-9 center to a five-year deal last June. Johnson has rewarded the Raptors with a career year.
“I think I’m just getting better with every game, working hard in the off-season and showing a little bit of what I can do,” said Johnson, who is averaging 9.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 2010-11. “I have to get better every year.”
Much of Johnson’s success this year can be attributed to his increase in playing time. That is partly a product of Chris Bosh’s exit to the Miami Heat in the offseason. Johnson has started 54 of Toronto’s 78 games, playing an average of 25.7 minutes a night, all career bests.
“The more he plays and the longer he plays, and actually gets into the game-type situations, it’s going to be those type of things that will accelerate his development” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “I think he’s gotten better each year and that’s something we hope will continue to happen.”
When Johnson first came into the league at 18, every so often he would get starstruck being on the same floor as some of his heroes. While many kids his age had posters of Shaquille O’Neal on their bedroom wall, Johnson was a coach’s call from posting up against the future Hall of Famer. Any wide-eyed experiences went out the door though as soon as Johnson stepped on the court.
The Los Angeles native credits Detroit’s veterans for helping teach him the ins and outs of the league. In return, Johnson did whatever his teammates told him to do. That includes some customary rookie hazing.
“There was a lot of christening,” he said. “I had to pay for meals. I didn’t have the money, but had to find a way to do it.”
Johnson says he does more teaching than messing with the yearly freshman, some of whom are his age despite the difference in NBA experience. When asked to envision what playing at the University of Louisville, where he committed, would have been like, Johnson pauses for a second then says, “I think I would have been a helluva college player.”
Although the 21-57 Raptors haven’t had much on-court success this season, there are certainly positive signs for the future. Johnson is one of them, and his points up.
“He’s one of the best interior defenders in the NBA” Triano said. “He brings a great attitude and great energy every time he’s on the floor.”
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In honor of the 2014/2015 NBA season NBA.com counts down Amir’s top 10 plays as a Toronto Raptor!