Joe Johnson still an All-Star, but he had doubts

LOS ANGELES -- They will call out Joe Johnson's name with the Eastern Conference All-Stars on Sunday at the Staples Center, confirmation that the Hawks guard still is one of the best players in the NBA.

The last time Johnson was in the building, he got called out as being unworthy of such status.

The Hawks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 2. With Johnson at the line for a free throw and the arena quiet, Darrell Bailey, better known as super fan (and playful heckler) "Clipper Darrell," let him have it.

"Joe, be honest: Do you really think you are worth $120 million?" Bailey shouted.

Johnson didn't react to the barbs, which isn't surprising considering his stoic demeanor. But in the weeks before that game, the honest answer to Bailey's question looked to be: "No."

Months after signing the richest contract in the NBA (worth $123.7 million), Johnson wasn't even the best player on his team. His scoring production, steady for so many seasons, took a steep decline. Johnson's shooting percentage plummeted to the point that the leader of the Hawks' offense was dragging it down.

Johnson and everyone in the organization said he eventually would get on track, but their words sounded more hopeful than assured. Johnson insisted that the pressure to live up to the new contract didn't affect his play.

Not directly, perhaps, but one of Johnson's uncles, Tracy Johnson, said it played a factor.

Johnson suffered an elbow injury at the end of November and had surgery Dec. 2. Already loathe to cite injuries to explain poor play, the new contract made Johnson even more reluctant to do so, Tracy Johnson said.

"A lot of people don't realize [after] signing the contract, it's a lot of pressure to come out and perform night in and night out," Tracy Johnson said. "When he was struggling, there was no way he can say he's hurting because it would seem like an excuse. He tried to play through the pain, but it got to the point where it was unbearable."

Johnson returned from the surgery only 15 days later. The development stunned everyone -- including Tracy Johnson, who talked to Joe that day and was told he was "fine," only to later turn on his television and hear that Johnson was in the starting lineup.

It took Johnson a few games to get his timing back, but once he did, he again looked like an All-Star.

His good run started, in fact, with that Clippers game: Johnson scored 29 points in the Hawks' 107-98 victory. Johnson would go on to score 26 points per game in January, fourth-best in the league.

Was it in some ways a relief to Johnson that the injury contributed to his slow start?

“Maybe so,” he said. “I didn’t know what the reason was. I was coming out and trying to do everything it took to give the team everything I had. Early in the season, it was a struggle. I knew eventually I would overcome it.”

Laboring like that was new for Johnson. He said he knew he could be a good player the first week of his rookie season with Boston in 2001-02.

Celtics veteran Eric Williams went down with an injury, and Johnson, the No. 10 pick in the draft that year, replaced him in the lineup. Johnson scored 23 points in his first start.

"I was just thinking to myself, ‘Man, I can really play in this league,'" Johnson said.

Those initial feelings were confirmed when Johnson became a key player for Phoenix after the Celtics traded him there. Phoenix sent him to Atlanta in a sign-and-trade deal in 2005, and he started his string of five consecutive All-Star appearances in 2007.

Johnson acknowledges that at the start of this season his confidence was shaken "maybe a little.” Opposing coaches, however, seemed to have little doubt Johnson would regain his form. Even as it became clear Johnson wasn't quite right, they continued to build their defensive plans around slowing him.

"The guy doesn't get enough credit for what he's been able to do," Hornets coach Monty Williams said. "I loved him in Boston. I thought, ‘Man, that young guy can play.' I thought if he stayed in Phoenix, they would be unbeatable. When he left, I had just started coaching in San Antonio, and I was glad he was out [of the West]."

The time off had Johnson saying he feels fresher than usual at this time of the season. He has played at least 3,000 total minutes in five of his past seven seasons, but is on pace for about 2,600 minutes this season.

“I think that is going to help in the long run, especially April and May,” he said. “I look forward to finishing off the season strong and getting back to the playoffs and, for us, proving everybody wrong.”

Then maybe Clipper Darrell will have to take back those taunts.