Former Gophers basketball standout Damian Johnson did not score a single point Sunday as his NBA Developmental League team, the Springfield Armor, lost to the Iowa Energy 92-83 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Throughout his career, Johnson has never been much of a scorer, but he hasn’t needed to be.
“I really like to pride myself on defense, and I really focus on shutting my man down and not giving up points,” Johnson said. “It’s just something I’ve always prided myself on.”
It’s something that has caught the eye of his head coach, Bob MacKinnon, during the first month of Johnson’s stint with the Armor.
“If he keeps working, he’s got a chance to be a Bruce Bowen type of player, and I really think he’s got a chance to make it in the NBA as that type of guy,” MacKinnon said. “If he really stays after it for the next year or two — I think it’s going to take him some time — but I think he’s got a real chance to get there.”
That’s high praise considering Bowen’s reputation as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders of the last 10 years.
Bowen, who has nearly the exact same build as the 6-foot-7, 195-pound Johnson, won three championships and was a five-time All-NBA Defensive First Team selection while playing with the San Antonio Spurs.
Johnson — an All-Big Ten defender for the Gophers — has yet to sit still since he graduated in 2010.
He worked out in the 2010 NBA Summer League, played the next year overseas in Japan for the Oita Heat Devils and spent time on the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam before finally settling in with Springfield — the New Jersey Nets’ D-League affiliate — earlier this month.
It’s safe to call the 6-foot-7 forward a journeyman, but Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My whole family played ball so it was just something I’ve inherited,” he said. “My mom, dad, sister, brother — all of them played ball before me so I’ve always been around it.”
Johnson said his older brother Dwight especially helped him in his growth as a player in their hometown of Thibodaux, La.
“I was in high school when he was 8 or 9,” Dwight Johnson said. “Damian was out in the yard playing against my friends … and I actually coached him when he was a kid.
“He’s always had an extra hand over everyone else. He’s always excelled in basketball. He had that height.”
Damian Johnson maximized his talent in high school and was an All-state performer in Louisiana as a senior. He was the All-Bayou Region Player of the Year that same year.
Johnson was also selected as the best defensive player in his conference during his last three years of high school.
It was that defensive aptitude and Johnson’s headiness that garnered the interest of Minnesota’s head coach Tubby Smith.
“If you look at him, he’s not a physical presence, but he has everything else to go with it,” Smith said. “He has the intelligence to understand what his weaknesses are and plays to his strengths.
“He wasn’t the strongest or the most physical; he didn’t jump the highest, but I think he got the most out of his skill set.”
Johnson was a three-star recruit coming out of Thibodaux High School in 2005, according to Rivals.com and ultimately chose to play for the Gophers.
“I was just hoping [to play college basketball] since I was small watching the Final Four with my family,” Damian Johnson said. “I had fun on the visit, and I enjoyed the environment, enjoyed campus. I thought it was a good fit for me [in Minnesota].”
He struggled in his first year on campus, averaging just 1.6 points and 9.9 minutes.
But he showed steady improvement on offense in his last three years, averaging 7.1, 9.8 and 9.9 points, while remaining a force on defense.
“He’s a guy that could guard just about anyone on the court from the [point guard] to [center],” Smith said. “You don’t find people willing to do that, much less capable of doing it.”
Johnson averaged more than a block and a steal per game every year after his freshman season. He was named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team in 2009 and became the second player in program history to officially earn that honor. During his senior season, he led the conference with 1.8 steals per game and ranked third in the Big Ten with 1.9 blocks per game.
Despite his stellar defense, Johnson didn’t show enough flash or offensive skills to appeal to any NBA teams and was undrafted coming out of Minnesota.
He managed to find his way onto the Summer League rosters for the Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010 but was cut before the 2010-11 NBA season began.
Without a spot on an NBA roster or practice squad, Johnson took his talents to Japan and joined the Oita Heat Devils.
“It was real fun — something different,” Johnson said of playing in Japan. “It was a different type of environment so I enjoyed it.
“I got to learn a little bit of Japanese, and I loved the food there,” he said. “They have a great culture, and I really enjoyed experiencing it.”
Johnson might have stood out as a 6-foot-7 black man in the streets of Japan, but he also stood out on the court.
He played in 47 games with Oita and averaged 15.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. But even 9,000 miles from Minneapolis, his game did not change.
He averaged 1.8 steals per game and 1.5 blocks per game and was named to the Basketball Japan League’s All-Defensive Team in 2011.
“He was extremely happy in Japan,” Dwight Johnson said of his brother’s experience. “I think being across the ocean away from family allowed him to grow a little bit more and mature some more.”
Following his year in Oita, Johnson saw he had a chance to play back in the United States with the D-League and seized it.
“I just saw the opportunity and wanted to try it out, test it out at least for a year while I’m still young,” Johnson said. “I ended up starting off in Bakersfield, and now I’m here with the Armor. It’s been a great opportunity. It’s been a real blessing.”
Johnson played 11 games with Bakersfield before the Armor picked up his rights in January 2012.
In Springfield, he has brought the same defensive tenacity he has competed with throughout his career, already making an impact.
“He’s like a one-man press sometimes,” MacKinnon said. He’s a terrific defender … and he’s a better offensive player than people give him credit for.”
Johnson has played in nine games with the Armor, averaging 8.0 points, 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks.
“He’s got to improve his perimeter skills,” MacKinnon said, “and he’s in the gym working at that.”
Johnson said he has goals of making the NBA one day but added that he is happy in the D-League for now.
“I’m just going to keep playing basketball until I can’t no more,” Johnson said. “I mean, you only get one opportunity to do this, and I’m going to keep riding this until the wheels fall off.”
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