Hawks Johnson out to prove he belongs in NBA

James Johnson has something to prove.

The former first-round pick has played for three teams in his four NBA seasons. He is now with a fourth team as a non-guaranteed training camp invitee of the Hawks.

Johnson said he had opportunities to sign with several teams this summer. The forward picked the Hawks after conversations with team management where they discussed his basketball goals – those if he made the team and those if he did not.

“Sometimes I have a habit of coming in and looking really good and throughout the season kind of falling off,” Johnson said. “For me, not being guaranteed, it woke me up and got me hungry again.

“They are taking me through the process like I was a first-year guy or an overseas guy. To me, it’s bringing the hunger back. It humbled me and got me loving basketball again. It got me excited just like you would if you were in high school.”

Johnson was one of the first two Hawks substitutes in Monday’s exhibition opener against the Heat in Miami, a 92-97 loss.

Johnson, 6-foot-9, 248 pounds, was the 16th pick of the draft by the Bulls in 2009. He played in 63 games as a rookie but the following season he spent time in the NBA Development League and eventually was traded to the Raptors. He was traded to the Kings last offseason.

In 219 career games, including 87 starts, Johnson has career averages of 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.0 blocks in 18.3 minutes. His cross-country journey took another stop with the invitation of the Hawks just prior to the start of training camp.

“He is unique in his size, in his athleticism and his skill set to have small forward skills, or perimeter skills, at that size,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We are intrigued about seeing if we can help him put it all together and become a more efficient, more productive, more consistent.”

Even with 14 players under contract, the Hawks have an opening at the small forward position. Johnson is battling with Damien Wilkins, Eric Dawson and Adonis Thomas, all training camp invites. General manager Danny Ferry prefers to keep fewer than the 15 player maximum for roster flexibility. However, any of the contracts of any of the invitees would not become guaranteed until Jan. 10.

Early in training camp, Johnson has been playing largely with the second unit. He was one of the 10 starters at the team’s open scrimmage Saturday. He finished with two points and five rebounds in 20 minutes against the Heat.

Budenholzer and Johnson both said not to read too much into his early role.

“It’s a long month,” Budenholzer said.

Johnson, who played two seasons at Wake Forest with point guard Jeff Teague, said he likes the clean slate he has with the new coaching staff. He welcomes the opportunity to prove what he can do on the court and not be identified because of a trade or from a scouting report.

The Hawks have decisions to make before opening-day rosters are set on Oct. 28, two days before the regular-season opener at the Mavericks. Budenholzer and his staff will use the first several exhibition games to evaluate before starting the process of trimming the training camp roster.

“Me coming in here with a tryout, I wanted to go down playing my game if I go down,” Johnson said. “I hope they enjoy it and I’m going to keep going until they tell me otherwise.”

NOTE: John Jenkins did not make the road trip due to lower back spasms. He will also miss Tuesday's exhibition against the Bobcats in Asheville, N.C.