'He had the answer for everything': The impact of James Johnson's leadership and how his lessons carry on
Every team needs a vet, especially an inexperienced group like the Pacers last season during a rebuild. Now, who steps forward this year?
For several years, the Pacers lacked the guy.
The wise one.
The experienced vet.
The Pacers front office studied teams around the league. They studied championship cultures, like in Miami. They also studied rebuilds, such as in Cleveland and Memphis.
And president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard set out to change course. Because they needed the guy, a positive yet brutally honest teammate to help guide the youth and show them how it’s done.
They entered last season with a roster that averaged out to be 25.08 years old, which ranked 10th youngest in the NBA. Go off experience, it is was less. Just 3.18 seasons, ranking sixth, according to league data.
Right away, I go back to our first conversation, which was about one year ago. It was at the Pacers’ annual golf outing and the subject was his newfound passion for golf.
“I’m never going to play something or do anything if it’s not about the competitiveness,” he said.
What’s the buzzword right now at Pacers camp 2023? Competitiveness.
And JJ helped instill that all last season. He was part of the change in DNA, along with Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. Guys who fight like hell and hated to lose. Despise it, actually.
Udonis Haslem in Miami had been the model for franchises. (He retired this offseason.) Good enough to still play when called upon, but understanding of his role and united in the quest to lift an entire locker room. And more than anything, demand accountability. (Another camp buzzword!)
“It’s one of the greatest locker rooms I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said of the Pacers’ last season, “other than the one that Udonis Haslem had in Miami.”
Haslem — aka UD — was one of Johnson’s vets. “The ultimate OG,” he said. So, too, was current Pacers assistant coach for player development Jannero Pargo, the team’s summer league head coach in July.
“When it got to 23-18,” head coach Rick Carlisle said last season of their strong start, “the veteran presence that James Johnson had given us on a day-to-day basis up to that point had been a pretty significant factor in us achieving what we had.
“He’s contributed so much to our situation just in terms of setting examples, mentoring, being very positive, being very truthful. He has a really strong reputation in this league as a great competitor, obviously [he’s] a very tough guy. He’s been a difference maker…”
That was year two of the Pacers’ rebuild and was long overdue. The value received from Johnson’s one-year deal cannot be overstated.
“He was that guy in the locker room that everybody could go to if they had a problem or if they needed advice on anything,” said Jalen Smith. “I went to JJ for everything because I respect JJ. I know everything that I went through, he went through so I knew that he had the answer for everything.”
So important that after completing a trade at the deadline, and having to waive him in the process, the team brought him back (bonus money!) to finish out the season.
But first, he sat courtside at their next home game after being waived — in Haliburton’s family seats — because he wanted to be there for his guys.
“It’s overwhelming for real,” Johnson said of all the love he received during the game. “Overwhelming. These guys know what they mean to me. Even throughout this whole process, I was getting texts throughout the day to make sure my family and me was OK.”
Johnson wasn’t after their minutes. He came in with a serve mentality, to provide whatever he felt was needed.
“Cheer for somebody else’s success,” he told them, “then it’s contagious.”
He stressed how important it was for each guy to know their role, for there to be no cliques on the team so if a few guys went to dinner on the road, they all would.