The first thing Tyler Johnson did this summer when the Heat agreed to match the $50 million offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets signed him to was take a picture of himself with the contract and send it to his mother by phone.
When he signed the deal it was the first time he had cried since his son Dameon was born 2 1/2 years ago.
“It was overwhelming — just all the hard work I put in,” said Johnson, an undrafted, third-year former D-League guard with only 73 games worth of NBA experience under his belt. “The first thing I bought was my house [down in Pinecrest]. That was the first major purchase. I also took my fiancée [Ashley] on a little shopping spree in New York.”
While Johnson knows some people think the Heat paid too hefty a price to keep him around (he’ll earn $19 million each in the final two years of his four-year deal), he feels his versatility as a combo guard will eventually validate his value — regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench this season.
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In Miami’s first two preseason games, Johnson has started at shooting guard alongside Goran Dragic and then moved to point guard when Dragic has headed to the bench.
Will that be coach Erik Spoelstra’s plan moving forward?
“I wouldn’t look too much into the lineups right now,” Spoelstra cautioned Monday. “We’re familiar with Tyler. [Having him start] helps fast-track. I would say any lineup right now — I wouldn’t [read] too much into it. But I really like what Tyler is bringing us. He’s playing both guard positions, feels very comfortable at either [guard] spot now. And that’s important.”
If you’re looking for clarity as far as who will replace Dwyane Wade at shooting guard in the Heat’s starting lineup, we don’t have any yet. Once Josh Richardson returns from injury — and that could happen by the start of the regular season on Oct. 26 — he could very well move to the top of the rotation, ahead of Johnson and Dion Waiters, who seems pegged for a sixth-man-type role with the Heat.
Either way, Spoelstra said Monday that Johnson “is going to be a big key to what we’re doing.” And what the Heat seems to be doing this preseason is shedding the premise of using a traditional point guard and shooting guard for what the coach refers to as a combination of playmaking guards.
“This game has evolved into the point where you need three or four playmakers on the floor together,” Spoelstra said. “We do like the strength of our versatility of this roster. Multiple guys can put the ball on the floor and make plays. You are already seeing that in the first two games. It’s becoming very necessary in this league the way some of the bigs are playing and switching and protecting the paint.”
As the Heat heads into its third preseason game on Tuesday night against the Nets, the first at home, the challenge for Johnson has become staying aggressive when he’s at shooting guard and knowing when to get others involved when he’s at the point.
“Sometimes my mind-set is so much attack that when I go in at point I’ve got to be cautious of making sure other guys are involved and not just getting it and going,” said Johnson, who is 5 of 12 from the field with 12 points, two assists and no turnovers in 38 minutes this preseason.
“I think what [Goran and I bring as starters] is that when there’s a certain matchup where offensively he has it rolling and he needs me to take one of the guards, I can do that. So I have an ability to complement him in that way. Also, we both run the floor the same way in terms of our ability to get out in transition sometimes. I can get it and he can look to run ahead, and I can pitch it up or vice-versa.”
So far, Spoelstra has often left the Heat’s second unit to run behind Waiters’ direction. He’s posted a team-leading 14 assists and eight turnovers in his first two games, with seven turnovers coming in Saturday night’s loss to the Timberwolves.
Would the Heat’s coach like to see more of Waiters and Dragic on the court together this preseason?
“Yeah,” Spoelstra responded Monday. “But I’ve been able to look at it in practice. There’s a lot of things I’m looking at. That’s one of them.”
▪ Veteran point guard Beno Udrih, dealing with tightness in his back since the third day of training camp in the Bahamas, is ready to start playing in games this week.
The 34-year-old journeyman finally went through a full contact practice on Monday morning and played in Monday night’s “Red, White and Pink” scrimmage at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“I’m not 100 percent, but I definitely feel a lot better,” Udrih said. “Obviously, I lost a little bit of conditioning these last couple of days. But I’m working hard to get that back. I should be fine [for Tuesday’s preseason game against Brooklyn].”