Saturday, March 13, 2004

Extraordinary Joe Johnson

A new player joins your favorite team, and soon you are intrigued by the possibilities. You watch his sweet swing of the bat, the swish of a jump shot, and you can't help but think: This is something special here.
He is a revelation.

These revelations, they come in different packages. Many are wrapped as blue-chippers and golden gods, as can't-miss kids. We know their names and pedigrees and 40-meter-dash times by heart, but meeting them for the first time is still a joy. Think Nomar Garciaparra in '97, or Paul Pierce a year later.

More rewarding is when the package arrives from obscurity, when the player has slipped beneath the radar of the hype machine. That way, you can claim discovery long before he gets his very own Nike commercial, rap album and Sports Illustrated spread. Think Curtis Martin in '95, or Tom Brady in recent hours.

I mention all this because the latter is happening again - several times a week on FoxSports New England, as a matter of fact.

Have you seen Joe Johnson play basketball yet? Have you been introduced to the latest revelation?

Ten games into the 2000-01 schedule, this much is clear about the Boston Celtics' rookie swingman and first of their three first-round draft picks:
He's got game. Serious game.

The stat sheet is the initial confirmation. Heading into last night's bout with the Toronto Raptors, Johnson was averaging a well-rounded 11.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, including his 22-8-6 line in a stirring victory over the Indiana Pacers last Wednesday. His assist-to-turnover ratio is an unheard-of 7-to-1, and he's sinking 51 percent of his shots.

Yet there's so much more to the Joe Johnson package than just digits.

He is not a bundle of abstract skills like Antoine Walker, or a smooth, sharp-shooting assassin like Pierce. He is something in between, an amalgam of the Celtics' two incumbent stars.

He's as versatile as a Swiss Army knife. His jumper is feather-duster soft. He rebounds. Better yet, he boxes out. Gotta love those fundamentals.

Already he is the deftest passer and ballhandler on the team. He pulled off a "Wow!"-worthy baseline touch pass against Indy, the likes of which haven't been seen in Boston since - blasphemy alert! - Larry Legend hobbled off to the golf course a decade ago.

Defense? So far, he has guarded Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Ray Allen and Vince Carter. He held his ground against each. Yes, he defends.

Along with the skill-set comes something else, something less tangible but apparent nonetheless. Call it charisma, poise, presence, duende. Or maybe it's just self-confidence, the assuredness that comes from knowing he's exactly where he belongs.

Johnson makes it easy for us to forget he's just 20 years old, a child - he was in Matt Bonner's SEC class, for Pistol Pete's sake. Naturally, there are going to be bumps along the way, rough nights when smart and savvy veterans teach him cold lessons in NBA 101, when the feathers turn to bricks and the pretty passes bounce off Vitaly Potapenko's hands only to become turnovers.

Pierce had those nights as an NBA freshman. Walker still has 'em. Johnson's had a few lately, including back-to-back two-point performances against the better-than-you-think Atlanta Hawks.

There will be those nights.

Just not many of them.

Maybe you are raising a suspicious brow at all this praise of the rookie. Maybe you think I'm desperately groping for a glimmer of hope, a hint of promise in a Celtic other than Walker and Pierce. Maybe you recall that I unabashedly admired Ron Mercer once, only to discover his elegant game disguised his what's-in-it-for-Ron attitude.

Maybe you suspect that this is Pitino-style hype job.

Fair enough. All I can ask is that you listen to the people who really know talent, the insiders, the lifers and the ballers themselves. Listen as they come to praise Joe Johnson.

Here's Walker, the co-captain, after the Indy game: "I'll say right now, he'll be the rookie of the year. Write it down. He is no fluke."

And Pierce, the other co-captain: "I'm not surprised by what Joe is doing. I saw it coming."

Says Jim O'Brien, the coach: "I can't believe how fast he's come along. He's exceeded all expectations, and our expectations were extremely high."

Lastly, there's this from Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics legend-slash-broadcaster, and one with an accomplished cynic's knack for spotting a young player's flaws: "He has John Havlicek's metabolism . . . Joe Johnson is becoming a star before our eyes."

Whoa. When Tommy Heinsohn mentions a kid in the same breath as his revered former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer . . . well, praise doesn't get much headier.

Clearly, no one in the know thinks Johnson is some ordinary Joe. Notice there are no qualifying "yeah, buts" "ifs" and "we'll sees" here.

They believe.

Question is: Will you?

It hasn't been easy being a Celtics fan lately, not in the lonesome years since Larry, Kevin and Robert walked out the door. Heaven knows the franchise long ago exceeded its quota of turmoil and tragedy.

Reggie Lewis passed away, god rest his soul. Eight years, and it still feels like yesterday.

Dear old Boston Garden was replaced by the FleetCenter, a shoebox so antiseptic it may as well be sponsored by Lysol.

The previous coach, that Napoleon in Armani, ran the franchise like Homer Simpson ran a power plant: disaster on top of disaster. D'oh, indeed.

Who could blame you if you stopped believing, stopped watching, stopped caring?
No one this side of Paul Gaston's accountant, that's who. But maybe - maybe - it's time to start again, because it's beginning to look like that long-lost leprechaun has finally made his way to the FleetCenter.

The first hint that their miserable luck was changing came on draft night three years ago, when Pierce somehow remained on the board with the 10th pick. How this wonderful player and endearing person slid so far has never been explained with any reasonable logic.
That Johnson also became a Celtic with a 10th selection can only be chalked up to serendipity. That, and the blind spots of NBA scouts.

Sometimes, the Sam Bowies do go before the Michael Jordans, the Raef LaFrentzes before the Vince Carters, the Michael Olowokandis before the Paul Pierces.
Sometimes, the DeSagana Diops go before the Joe Johnsons.

It's called good fortune, Celtics fans. Don't question it. Enjoy it.

And enjoy this team. With Johnson forming a budding Three Amigos with Pierce and Walker, the Celtics are worth watching again, even as they remain a work in progress. They're 5-5, and last night's collapse against the Raptors makes it three tough losses in a row.

Let's try not to sweat the small struggles. These guys will get it right soon enough. They fight the good fight every night, they play hard, and they play as a team. If someone could make Kenny Anderson disappear, they might be playing as a playoff team.
But this isn't about has-beens and overstayed welcomes. This is about what-could-bes and pleasant introductions.

Joe Johnson has arrived in Boston. With him comes hope in 48 minute increments, the promise of sunny days ahead.

That's the best part. The revelation is only the beginning of the fun.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor, 2000)