Setting: the Portland Trail Blazers' practice facility.
Situation: Chris Johnson soars through the air and flushes a powerful dunk over the cowering Armon Johnson.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your newest Trail Blazer.
At 6'11" and 210 pounds, Johnson seems undersized and overmatched. Most players at the center position would dominate the "smaller" Johnson, overpowering him in the paint and on the glass. Then again, maybe not.
Johnson's a guy who can sneak up on opposing players. His quickness, athleticism and leaping ability turn heads and have coaches and fans asking, "Who was that?"
These are the qualities that make the soft-spoken Johnson a standout basketball player.
“I start off quiet,” Johnson said of his likable character. “But once I get use to people, I open up a little more.”
Like his quiet-but-joking persona, his progression on the court has caught many eyes in the same manor. Just ask the Dakota Wizards of the NBA Development League, who saw Johnson come from international play and rank third on the team with 16.2 points per game, lead the club with 9.2 boards per game, all while anchoring a defense with a shot-blocking presence, rejecting nearly three shots per contest.
"I played in Turkey and Poland," Johnson said. "It was a rough experience. Different culture and stuff you've got to get used to, but I felt it was a learning experience as well. It made me more hungry coming into the D-League."
But Johnson will tell you while all the adversity he faced overseas pushed him closer to returning to the U.S., it also left a stained memory of his former home.
“The experience in Europe made me more hungry not to go back,” said Johnson, a kid who dreamed of making it to the NBA. “The coaching is not the same as in America. It’s pretty much intense. You lose a game and you feel like it’s the end of the world. That’s just how it is over there.”
His improvements, nonetheless, earned him a bid into the D-League All-Star Game, where he put up 10 points, two rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes of action. Not only that, but he finished second in the dunk contest.
(View his other dunks here
Johnson's appetite for success with the Wizards drew attention from the next level, as he earned 10-day contracts with the Trail Blazers as well as the Boston Celtics. There, Johnson had the opportunity to learn from the best.
"Just learn from the veterans," he said about his stops with Portland and Boston. "Learn from (Marcus) Camby how to time blocked shots. Learn from (Kevin Garnett) in different ways you want to play defense... Just use whatever you learn in a certain amount of time."
Now in his second stint with Portland, Johnson has more time to work with. On March 14, the Trail Blazers signed the center for the remainder of this season as well as next year, which is non-guaranteed.
"Getting to know the guys the first time around, I feel a lot more comfortable with what's going on," he said. "I've got to get the plays down, but defensively I feel (confident)."
His scoring ability in the development league exceeds what his scoring average implies. Hitting 51.7 percent of his attempts, Johnson is efficient. He's accurate. He has the potential to be dominant.
To get there, however, Johnson said one thing stands out as a necessity: strength.
"Of course strength, as far as getting bulky," he said. "I'm athletic, I can move around, but I don't want to get too bulky to the point where I can't move around and do the things I'm good at."
This season could bring an end to his Trail Blazer contract. Then again, Portland could bring him back for next year. Johnson doesn't think about tomorrow, however. He's all about the present.
"You take it one day at a time," he said. "The things that you can control are your attitude, your energy that you bring everyday. Everything else is up in the air."
That energy, that attitude and the hard work put into every practice, every shootaround and every game is Johnson's way of showing his commitment.
"I've got a little more confidence," he said. "Just coming here and working hard everyday and knowing that I want to belong here and I want to stay here... You see guys like Camby work hard everyday, the time they put in and where they are right now and you want to get there."
Text: Grant Lucas
and Shalamar Clark. Video: Shalamar Clark.