Daniel Johnson reflects ahead of 350th game

Written for by Tom Hersz

It would seem Daniel Johnson was always destined to play basketball.

Watching him play, he looks so natural out there with his vast skillset and of course his size. However, he could very easily never have been introduced to the game at all.

No one in Johnson’s family had really played basketball so it was by chance that his father, a science tutor, happened to be tutoring a woman who ran the local basketball club near where they lived in Western Australia.

“[She] just said ‘come on down’ and I was pretty tall,” Johnson told NBL Media yesterday.

“No one else before in my family really played basketball so it was all new. I just headed down and really enjoyed it. Looking forward to the weekends were my earliest memories. I just fell in love with it from an early age and kept going with it.”

Johnson, like all kids with a passion for the game, worked on his craft. And despite him always being one of the taller kids, he didn’t focus on pure interior skills.

He began to work on all facets of his game, which is why his skillset is so unique today and his offensive arsenal is so stacked with an array of different talents.

“That started pretty young as well,” he explained.

“I don’t like authority too much and being told ‘you’re tall, you can’t do this’, so I guess I wanted to be able to shoot, dribble, pass – do everything that the guards could do.

“And probably at a young age I took it upon myself to work hard on those things, so that I was allowed to do them in games. Those are the things that are most fun to me when I’m playing. I don’t want to just be the stock standard big.

“I think the more skilled you are, the more you can help your team, so I’ve always focused on those things.”

Some of the things that Johnson does, have become more commonplace with the move towards stretch bigs, but his ability to put the ball on the floor, to score off the dribble, in the post or spotting up on catch and shoot opportunities, sets him apart from most other frontcourt players.

It’s drawn comparisons to another big man who in many ways revolutionised the game and paved the way for guys like Johnson.

Some have thrown out the nickname ‘Aussie Dirk’ when talking about “DJ” in comparison to former NBA MVP and Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, and Johnson is just flattered that people see that connection.

“He was one of the all-time greats in the NBA, so it’s a compliment for sure, but I’ve just got my own style,” Johnson said.

“I just go about it the way I go about it and comparisons are nice, but I’m just happy to have a bit of success myself.”

Johnson had success early, being named to Australian junior teams and, like most talented Australian prospects, spent some time at the Australian Institute of Sport. He then headed to the U.S. to play for Pepperdine University, where he started for most of the season.

When he returned to Australia, he joined the Melbourne Tigers – a team stacked with talent including Chris Anstey, Sam Mackinnon, Ebi Ere and David Barlow.

Johnson doesn’t recall many specific moments from that season, but does remember that his expectations for himself were pretty modest at that stage.

“It was such a long time ago now,” he explained.

“The guys that were playing were some of the better guys in the league; they had a really successful group. So, it was just fitting in, playing my role, watching and getting better.

“I didn’t play much, I think it was only junk minutes that first year. But, just being able to train against those guys was a privilege and I think it really helped me.”

That Tigers team went to the Grand Final series, where they would lose to the South Dragons in five games. It was the first Grand Final loss for DJ, but would not be his only chance at winning a title.

After two years with Melbourne, Johnson moved to Adelaide and it was there that his career started to flourish. In his second season with the Sixers, he won the NBL’s Most Improved Player award after increasing his production from 9.9 points and 4.2 rebounds the previous season to 16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds.

He also captured All-NBL Third Team honours that season: the first of seven All-NBL selections he would go on to earn.

Johnson has since led the league in rebounding twice, been named to the All-NBL First Team and Second Team three times each and won the Adelaide 36ers Club MVP award a staggering five times.

He recently clocked up game number 300 with the 36ers and tomorrow will play his 350th NBL game.

Johnson has been a part of some great teams in Adelaide. He’s been to two more Grand Final series, in the 2013-14 season and again in the 2017-18 season, and won a Minor Premiership alongside Jerome Randle in 2016-17.

It’s tough for him to pin down which of those teams was the best he’s played on though.

“That’s probably difficult [to answer],” he acknowledged.

“That second Grand Final team we were really talented. Obviously when Chill [Josh Childress] went down, it hurt us a bit, but we actually went ten deep.

“The previous Grand Final, we were pretty deep as well. But I think that team then, everyone was on the same page and moving in the right direction. There was no friction at all.

“So, I think both groups were pretty special and [I was] happy to be around those guys and still friends with a lot of them today.”

Unfortunately, none of those teams managed to break through for a championship and between his rookie season in Melbourne and those two Sixers teams, he’s lost the Grand Final three times – each time in the deciding game of the series.

A title is the thing that has eluded Johnson the most and it’s hard not to wonder whether that will be held against him as people begin to evaluate his career.

“I mean, probably,” he offered candidly.

“If that’s the way people want to look at it, I guess we play professional sports to win championships. I’ve still got a few years to try to achieve that. But at the end of the day, you can’t really control what other people think.

“As long as you know within yourself you tried your best and you’ve gone out there and done everything you can, I think that’s the main thing. So people’s opinions don’t concern me too much.”

Right now, Johnson is more focused on this season than what’s happened in the past.

It’s been a roller coaster season for the Sixers in many ways. Starting with the change in Head Coach to Conner Henry after Joey Wright was at the helm for the past seven seasons, it’s a new style, structure and a different roster from some of those successful teams of the past.

Mitch Creek, Nathan Sobey, Anthony Drmic, and Matt Hodgson have all moved on in recent years, leaving Johnson really as the only mainstay from that most recent Grand Final team.

The team has also had new imports come in, a number of injuries and the additions of Josh Giddey and Isaac Humphries as focal points to build around alongside DJ.

Add to that the challenges of navigating this season through all the COVID protocols, schedule uncertainty and the NBL Cup experience, and it’s not always been easy.

“It’s been difficult, I think: probably the most difficult season I can remember playing,” Johnson admitted.

“With the extended season, and just not knowing what you’re doing weeks in advance is pretty stressful. I think just the uncertainty of everything has been difficult and a bit of a grind.

“Everyone’s in the same boat and guys from other teams have had it worse than we have this year, that’s for sure, so can’t complain about it and just gotta get on with it.

“Conner coming into the club has been a new chapter and we’re still adjusting. It takes a bit of time and you see with most teams, continuity is the biggest thing that helps you win and have success in this league, so hopefully we’re better for this year moving forward.”

One aspect that Johnson has definitely enjoyed this season has been having Giddey on the team. While DJ isn’t that used to rookies playing such big roles, it’s clear that Giddey is no ordinary rookie. And it’s fair to say that Johnson has, as we all have, been suitably impressed with what this 18-year old has been able to achieve.

Johnson has played with some terrific guards over his career with the 36ers. Jerome Randle, Nathan Sobey, Adam Gibson, Jason Cadee and Jamar Wilson are just some of the names that spring to mind, but DJ can’t recall ever playing with another guard who is built like Giddey.

“I think Josh has overachieved on people’s estimations of him coming into the league,” said Johnson.

“At that age, I don’t know too many guys that can come in and do what he’s done. Running a team at the point guard is really difficult, probably the hardest thing to do in basketball.

“He’s had a massive year and we’re really happy for him. He’s going to go on and do bigger and better things, which is great. He’s been a great guy around the club as well; all the boys love him. He’s going to be unreal.

“In terms of other guards that I’ve played with, he’s different to other guards. Being 6’8” and he’s a really talented rebounder and passer. I guess he’s just got a different game to most point guards who come into the league, which is why he’s going to go on and have that success hopefully in the NBA.”

While Giddey is looking ahead at the NBA Draft and all that will follow in his upcoming journey, Johnson has had a chance to reflect back on his own career, as he gets ready to lace up for this 350th game tomorrow.

Hitting a milestone like this gives him another reason to be thankful for what he’s been able to achieve.

“It’s a bit of reward for the hard work and consistency over the years,” Johnson reflected.

“I’ve always thought as long as I can be consistent with my effort out there on the court, hopefully I can go on and have a really good career.

“A lot of guys don’t get to play that many games, so I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to wear the Sixers jersey as long as I have.”

His fondest memories from his career to-date were easy to identify.

“I think those Grand Final series,” Johnson said.

“Our success and sharing it with other people, teammates and your mates is why we play team sports. A lot of great memories from those seasons.

“Obviously we didn’t go on to win championships, but just being in the trenches with those blokes is probably the best thing about it all.”

And as he looks back on the all the individual and team success that he’s had over the years, it is not yet winning that elusive title that stings Johnson the most.

“I think three times I’ve lost the deciding game in a Grand Final series and those are devastating moments,” he acknowledged.

“But you learn from them, so you can’t really regret it too much because it teaches you some lessons going forward.

“I think I’ve learnt a lot from the losses as well, so I wouldn’t say regrets but they’re definitely the moments that hurt the most.”

Johnson turned 33 years old earlier this month. Most players would be slowing down by that age, but he is still very much at the top of his game.

Johnson ranks 3rd in the league in scoring at 20.7 points per game. He’s 10th in rebounding and he’s again shooting at a clip as good as any other point in his career, hitting at 47.7% from the field, 39.8% from deep and 87.3% from the free-throw line.

Some wonder if Johnson will ever stop playing. He’s been really healthy over the course of his career and he’s not looking to retire any time soon, but he is very clear in his mind on when that will be.

But for now, he’d like to keep playing until he doesn’t feel like he should any longer.

“As long as I’m contributing and still playing a role,” he explained.

“It doesn’t have to be the role I’m playing now but as long as I’m still helping us get wins and be successful, that’s the main thing.

“[My] body feels really good still and it’s no secret my game’s not really built around athleticism or anything like that, so I’m hoping I’ve still got plenty left in me.

“[But] I don’t want to be one of those guys that just sits on the bench and takes away minutes from young guys that could come in and start their careers.

“So, we’ll just see how we go and hopefully I can keep performing for a few years from now. Fingers crossed.”


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