Signed by the Miami Heat as an undrafted free agent last week, rookie Tyler Johnson faces an uphill battle to make the NBA. Good thing the Mountain View native is somewhat of an expert when it comes to conquering hills.
As soon as Johnson returned from Fresno State – where he played basketball the past four seasons – the St. Francis High graduate began running the rugged sand hills of San Francisco as part of his summer training regimen. He took them on almost every day.
“It’s crazy, but it’s worth it,” Johnson said in a phone interview from Miami. “The first day it’s a monster, but it makes you stronger. It’s the best thing for your legs.”
Those springy legs – and that drive – helped the 6-foot-4 shooting guard land a spot on the Heat’s NBA Summer League team last month.
Johnson took full advantage of the opportunity, performing well enough against the NBA’s other rookies and second-year players to earn a partially guaranteed contract from the Heat. He inked the deal Aug. 6.
“It always been a dream of mine – since I first picked up a ball,” Johnson said of getting a chance to compete for an NBA job. “When it happens, it’s kind of surreal. It’s awesome.”
There was a time when Johnson wondered if he would get the chance. He worked out for three teams prior to the NBA Draft – the Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors – but wasn’t selected June 26.
“I did go a little under the radar, but that’s just how things work out sometimes,” said Johnson, named All-Mountain West Conference Second Team after a senior season in which he averaged 15.9 points per game and shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range. “I had to work a little harder to get attention.”
Although the Heat passed on him in the two-round draft, the team targeted the sharpshooting Johnson for its summer league squad. Despite getting off to a start more anonymous than auspicious – he didn’t play a single second in the league opener – Johnson’s confidence never wavered.
“I just stayed ready,” he said. “I knew it wouldn’t happen right away. I knew there was a pecking order – it’s the best league in the world. But I knew that if I stayed patient and didn’t get down on myself, my opportunity would come.”
It came in the Heat’s second game in Orlando. Johnson played 13 minutes off the bench, scoring 14 points against the Brooklyn Nets. He made all six of his shots, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“I was so excited to be in the game and my adrenaline took over,” Johnson said. “That led to me having a great couple of games in Orlando.”
Two games later versus the Indiana Pacers, Johnson finished a one-handed alley-oop that garnered Dunk of the Night on NBA.com. A cluster of congratulatory texts from friends and former teammates at St. Francis and Fresno State followed.
The next day, Johnson racked up 17 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
By the time the Heat traveled to Las Vegas for the second slate of summer league games, he was in the starting lineup.
“It was almost surreal,” Johnson said of his rapid rise. “I think the main (reason) was that I stayed ready and stayed humble.”
He capped a solid showing in Vegas by scoring a season-high 20 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers July 18. Johnson averaged 12.2 points over 11 games, shooting 54.8 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from beyond the arc and 81.4 percent from the foul line.
Heat officials had seen enough from Johnson to know they wanted him in their training camp this fall. They approached him about signing an NBA contract. Johnson didn’t put pen to paper right away, however.
“The Heat really wanted me to come to training camp, but at the same time, I do have a family – it’s not all about me,” said Johnson, who has an eight-month-old son with his girlfriend.
He held out for a partially guaranteed deal – terms of which the Heat would not disclose.
“If I make it out of camp, the terms change,” said Johnson, who led St. Francis to a Northern California championship in 2010.
If he doesn’t make the team, it probably won’t be due to a lack of effort. Johnson is already grinding. After spending this week in Mountain View, Johnson said he would return to Miami and train twice a day until camp opens.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can and pray it works out for the best,” he said. “That’s got me to this point.”
Don’t be surprised to find Johnson running those unforgiving sand hills before he leaves town.