They don’t quite know the details but Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan insist they are family.
“We haven’t put it out there before but we are definitely related,” DeRozan was saying this week.
“It’s true,” said Johnson. “Cousins. By marriage.”
The particulars of the connection are a little hazy. Neither DeRozan or Johnson are quite clear as to who married whose whomever but both men are enthusiastic about the idea and keen to get confirmation from family elders soon.
That two members of the same team are distantly related isn’t that newsworthy. Remember the duo of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady? What’s more interesting is how much the two want to be.
Said DeRozan: “Amir is forever going to be a kid. He’s got a good heart. He’s a good dude.”
The two go back to DeRozan’s middle-school years. Johnson was the guy from South Central LA who jumped from Westchester High School right into the NBA.
“I used to see him all the time at different gyms,” DeRozan said. “You watch a guy like Amir. You want to be able to be on magazines and be well-known, go to the McDonalds tournament, get drafted out of high school the way he was.”
Then and now, people want to be like Amir Johnson.
“Amir is really one of those people who is who he is no matter what,” said teammate Landry Fields. “There is a certain respect you give people like that because you know they’re never faking it.”
At 25 Amir Johnson remains a perpetual motion machine. That the six-foot-nine power forward tracks rebounds relentlessly – witness his career high 21 boards against Charlotte last week – isn’t a surprise but at 25 he is just as dogged in pursuing improvement.
Johnson has already set career highs in field goals, offensive and defensive rebounds, assists, steals, double-doubles and blocks. His name has been in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
Now an eight-year vet, Johnson’s work under both baskets has never been better but the presence of DeRozan and Rudy Gay has left plenty of room for the gradual addition of a mid-range jumper to Johnson’s game.
“Players usually leave me open,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned how to knock that shot down. It’s still not as consistent as I would like but if I’m wide open I will definitely shoot the ball.”
“The pace of Amir’s growth has been something that no one in our organization foresaw,” said Raps coach Dwane Casey. “I challenged Amir to work on his shooting. He did that but again, his rebounding and growth on the defensive end and on the offensive boards have been phenomenal.”
For Johnson treading water has never been an option.
He was always the kid who couldn’t stay still. Living with his Mom, grandmother and aunt, Johnson was expected to go to church several times a week for years. For an irrepressible boy, sitting still was a tougher test than theology.
“I just remember running around in church. I went to Sunday school and we had to sit and learn about the Bible. I liked church but I couldn’t wait to get out of Sunday school.”
Amir ran track and stood five-foot-nine by the end of middle school. As he rapidly added inchces basketball seemed a better proposition.
Sports were his social life. The women in his life guided him.
“You respect women when they have such a big role in your life,” he said. “My family kept me out of trouble. I was never in the streets. I always had something to do, be it with sports or with school.”
Johnson committed to the University of Louisville but when his name began surfacing as a potential NBA pick he stood for the draft.
The 26th pick in the second round of the 2005 draft, Johnson instantly became a trivia question when the NBA ended the ability of a player to jump from high school to an NBA roster. Johnson made the Pistons but was a raw, underdeveloped prospect who spent parts of his next two seasons in the NBA D-League.
Over four years in Detroit and four more seasons after he was traded, first to Milwaukee and then, a month later to Toronto, Johnson has built his body and his body of work.
He knew little about Toronto when he was dealt.
“I knew it was cold because I had been in Detroit but I came with an open mind,” he said. “I was going to learn, learn the team, learn the city and just play.”
Along the way he has cultivated a fierce on-court persona.
“On the court, I kind of transform. It could be my grandmother on the court and I’ll try to throw an elbow at her,” he said. “It’s just the way I play. I have no friends on the court.”
That transformation spilled over when Johnson was tagged with a one-game suspension for throwing his mouth guard at an official, December 10. The ejection was a milestone. When Johnson returned from his night off the Raptors won eight of their next 10.
Johnson’s combination of hustle, rebounding and his step forwards as a shot maker are pushing him into a different strata.
Amir Johnson as an All-Star sixth-man?
“Hopefully in the next couple of years I will shoot toward being an All-Star,” he said. “That would be something I want to accomplish.”
“It’s possible,” Casey said. “Who am I to say he can’t be an All-Star? He’s a pro’s pro. I would vote for him as an All-Star because he brings it every night.”