Former MMA fighter in NBA draft

Monday, June 22, 2009

Utah Jazz: Johnson fighting to be a lottery pick despite concerns

With a father, Willie, who’s a multi-time world kickboxing champion, and a mother, Vi, who’s a black belt herself, James Johnson — the middle child among nine who all are into the martial arts — can’t help it that fighting’s in his blood.

It’s been a few years, though, since Johnson has gone to battle himself.

Understandably, too, since millions of dollars are at stake in another line of work.

“It’s way too risky — but it’s always fun,” said Johnson, who started kickboxing when he was 4, won a couple big titles himself as a teen and last was in the cage as a mixed martial arts amateur taking out a much-older future pro.

These days, however, the 22-year-old sophomore from Wake Forest University by way of Cheyenne, Wyo., is battling to protect his status as a possible lottery pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft.

The Jazz had 6-foot-7, 257-pound Johnson in town to work out Sunday, and seeing that they own the No. 20 pick in Thursday’s draft — six removed from lottery status — that’s no small task.

It doesn’t hurt, evidently, that Johnson’s agent feels he’d fit Utah’s system like a glove. Or that he has an older brother — yep, black belt — living in Salt Lake City.
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“I’m gonna work out every day anyway, so I may as well work out for a coach,” Johnson, who nowadays helps his father instruct at the family-owned martial arts school in Wyoming, said in explaining why he visited with a team picking so low. “That’s the way I look at it.”

Besides, he added, “I just play basketball. It’s what I do. You know, it’s every kid’s dream to come out and try out for all kinds of teams in the NBA ?— and I’m just living the dream right now. It’s definitely fun, flying from city to city, staying in a hotel and working out for a pro team like the ‘Salt Lake’ Jazz.”

But there may be more to it than that.

Internet chatter has Johnson, who plans to be in New York for Thursday’s draft, with supposed red flags for loosely defined concerns ranging from high maintenance and poor practices in school to less-than-impressive interviews.

That’s not exactly the sort of discipline, it seems, for which the martial arts are known.

But is the talk mere smokescreen from teams positioning to take him in the teens, or is there something to it?

“I think those are concerns with a lot of people that are in this draft, and in the league,” Jazz player personnel vice president Walt Perrin said. “Will it affect us in terms of deciding whether we draft him or not? That’s something we think about.

“In terms of ‘If he falls that far, falls to us, is there a concern?’ I mean, we do our due diligence, whether he’s going to be a lottery pick or be at 20. So, we look into that. But we have to decide — even if he is sliding, and there’s red flags, if there are any — how big of a concern is that to us, and how good of a player can he be for us, and how can he help us win.”

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