WALTHAM, Mass. -- Larry Brown, then head coach of the Detroit Pistons, recalls Amir Johnson’s workout for the team leading up to the 2005 NBA draft.
At the time Detroit was among the NBA’s top teams and Johnson, a high school star from California who was bypassing college altogether to turn pro, was on their radar as a mid-to-late second round pick.
“I wanted him a lot before that,” Brown, grinning, told CSNNE.com.
Johnson, drafted by Detroit with the 56th overall pick in 2005, was extremely athletic with a long, lanky 6-foot-9 frame with a skillset that needed work – lots of work.
But Brown saw something else.
He saw a kid with more than just potential, but a motor that just wouldn’t let up – ever.
And now nearly a decade later, that same drive Brown saw in Johnson as a youngster is still present after all these years.
It’s one of the many reasons why the Boston Celtics made signing Johnson a priority this summer.
The Celtics’ brass met in early May to discuss free agency.
Several names were thrown out there, but there was one that seemed quite popular – Amir Johnson.
“Amir’s name came up early and often as a target,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged. “We all thought he would benefit our team.”
And as the Celtics (1-0) prepare to host the Toronto Raptors – Johnson’s former team – on Friday, his seemingly boundless energy provides added optimism that Boston can start the season with a pair of wins for the first time since 2009.
Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics with a game-high 27 points in their 112-95 win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. There were others that stepped up and contributed as well.
But it’s hard to look past the impact Johnson made from the time he entered the game until he went back to the bench to catch a breather.
Johnson’s first stint as a Celtic lasted eight minutes, four seconds. He stepped on the floor with Boston trailing by nine points (26-17).
By the time he returned to the bench with 6:17 to play in the second quarter, Boston was on an 18-2 run and led 35-28.
“He impacts winning,” said Stevens.
Johnson spent six seasons with the Raptors, helping them win Atlantic Division titles each of the last two seasons.
Prior to his arrival, Toronto had won the Atlantic Division just once (2007) in 14 seasons.
“I’m just thrilled when I see kids like him,” Brown said. “He does things the right way. He cares. It’s good to see him rewarded.”
While teams focused on his athleticism coming out of high school, Johnson said he learned real quick that being a good defender would be his calling card in the NBA.
He attributes some tough love treatment by ex-Celtic Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace during his early days in Detroit, for getting him to understand the importance of being a good defender.
“Those Detroit Bad Boys, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace,” Johnson told CSNNE.com. “Just the toughness aspect of it. Working out with those guys, and Antonio McDyess … defense just kind of stuck with me. They did it and we won a lot of games in Detroit. I figured that was it; play great defense and you can win a lot of games.”
Johnson hasn’t been with the Celtics for very long, but players have quickly gravitated to him in large part because it seems wherever he goes, great success soon follows.
He saw very little action as a rookie in Detroit, but the Pistons wound up winning a franchise-record 64 games that season.
And when Johnson moved on to Toronto, success soon followed with the Raptors improving their win total in each of the last four seasons Johnson was on the roster.
“You definitely have to give it up to him; his teams win games wherever he goes, and after playing with him you can see why,” Boston’s Isaiah Thomas told CSNNE.com. “Everything he does; it’s about winning. The way he rebounds, blocks shots, defends, dives to the rim … he’s all about not just making plays, but making winning plays.”
It’s just a one game sample, but Johnson’s play in Boston’s 112-95 win over Philadelphia was in many ways symbolic of the kind of play those who have been around him give him praise for.
Trailing 26-17 in the first quarter, Johnson entered the game with 2:31 to play in the quarter. Eighteen seconds later, he had a blocked shot.
A Jared Sullinger lay-up cut Philadelphia’s lead to 26-19, but it was Johnson’s defensive rebound that helped set up Sullinger’s basket.
There were more rebounds grabbed, shots altered and hustle plays throughout the game made by Johnson that individually may not have seemed all that big a deal.
But collectively, they made a difference in the game’s outcome. That’s why the Celtics did not hesitate in offering Johnson a two, $24 million contract with the second year of the deal being a team option.
Johnson said he did not have any concerns about the second year being guaranteed or not.
“As long as I continue to do what I do, and that’s play good defense, rebound, get a few buckets here and there … I don’t worry about the contract,” Johnson said. “Right now, the only thing on my mind is winning games; winning lots of games. That’s it.”