The Miami Heat’s designated enforcer for years has been Udonis Haslem — the guy who set hard screens, bloodied his face fighting for rebounds and defended the honor of Dwyane Wade whenever he got fouled hard by the opposing team.
Odds are Haslem, 36, will continue to be that guy this coming season. But if he ever needs back up, he knows newcomer James Johnson is the guy to turn to.
Johnson, 29, is an imposing 6-8, 250-pound forward who has averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds over his seven year career with the Bulls, Kings, Grizzlies and Raptors. He’s also a second-degree back belt, who is 21-0 in kickboxing and 7-0 in mixed martial arts bouts, his last coming after his freshman year at Wake Forest.
“There are not too many guys I run up on that I might think twice about, but he’s one of the guys,” Haslem said Friday after the Heat completed its fourth day of camp at the Atlantis Paradise Resort.
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There are not too many guys I run up on that I might think twice about, but he’s one of the guys.
Heat forward Udonis Haslem about teammate James Johnson
“Obviously, what he’s been able to do and the background he has, I have a lot of respect for him. I’m sure if something ever happens I’d love to have him on my side than on the other side. It’s good to have another guy that doesn’t mind to get his hands dirty at times.”
Johnson, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Heat this summer and figures to see minutes everywhere in the front court including center when coach Erik Spoelstra goes with his small lineups, comes from a family of martial artists.
His father, Willie, a former Marine, is a seven-time world kickboxing champion and master, and his mother, Vi, is a five-time national kickboxing champ. Each of Johnson’s eight siblings are black belts of varying degrees.
Though he has the ability to deliver the kind of roundhouse kick that could send someone to the emergency room, Johnson, who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and played two years of college basketball at Wake Forest, prefers a peaceful approach to life. In his seven years in the NBA he has drawn a total of eight technicals and only two flagrant fouls, the last flagrant coming in 2012 with the Raptors.
“Hopefully, God blesses me for a long time where I don’t have to get back into the cage,” said Johnson, who said his father began training him in martial arts when he was 6 and who still goes through martial arts workouts.
“I grew up with my head held high,” he continued. “Everywhere I went my head was held high. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. I was never afraid of confrontation. But I was never the aggressor. I never picked on anyone. That’s another thing it teaches you — just to let things go. If you know you can beat someone then you tend to let them win the argument and walk away because you might have just saved them from a broken nose or something.”
I grew up with my head held high. Everywhere I went my head was held high. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. I was never afraid of confrontation. But I was never the aggressor. I never picked on anyone. That’s another thing it teaches you — just to let things go.
The last time Johnson said he fought was after his freshman year of college. He got called into fill in for someone who backed out of an MMA fight and he ended up beating his opponent, 12 years is elder, in 97 seconds.
Now, he’s fighting for playing time on a Heat team in search of a replacement for 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh in the frontcourt. On Friday, with center Hassan Whiteside taking a day off to rest his sore left knee, Johnson, known for his defense, screen-setting and hustle, moved from the wing to center and worked in with Haslem and 6-11, 245-pound, second-year player Willie Reed.
Johnson, a career 26.6 percent three-point shooter, can certainly defend. He held the players he guarded last season to 2.8 percent below their normal shooting average (42.2 percent). He said Friday he’d like to do what Justise Winslow does for the team — be capable of guarding as many positions on the floor as he can.
“He brings toughness, versatility,” Spoelstra said of Johnson. “That’s what we’ve always respected about his game. He’s a big, physical wing that can guard multiple positions. But I’ve also been encouraged by his offensive versatility. You can put the ball in his hands and he can make plays. You can use him as a screener. You can put him down low. You can put him out in the perimeter, and he finds a way to make an impact.”
Johnson said Friday he’s been enjoying his new teammates and feels right at home.
Earlier this week when Haslem took the entire team out to bond over a private dinner, Johnson and Haslem jumped on the turntables at the restaurant and shared the role of disk jockey.
“James Johnson is a really good guy,” Whiteside said. “I like a lot of these guys, but I really like James Johnson a lot just because he’s faced a lot of adversity out there like me.”
Johnson said he feels at home with the Heat.
“I don’t feel like I’m here by myself,” he said. “I have great teammates, and I’m not just saying that. Everybody here is like, ‘James, next time, do it this way. That way wasn’t wrong. But if you try it this way it works better.’ I try and take it into consideration and move on. I’m just ready to contribute.”