If it wasn’t clear that Tyler Johnson will be staying awhile, it should be now, after Tuesday’s trade of two-time champion starting point guard Mario Chalmers, after Erik Spoelstra called the former undrafted free agent an “irresistible force” who has “earned what he’s getting,” after Johnson was the Heat’s first guard off the bench.
So now that he’s no longer a secret to the NBA, you’re likely, over time, to learn some of his secrets.
Here’s a taste:
“He has a bowl of Lucky Charms every night before bed,” Ashley, his fiancée and the mother to his 2-year-old son Dameon, said Tuesday before Tyler and the Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers 101-88. “He love his Lucky Charms.”
Then there’s this revelation from his mother, Jennifer, a master sergeant in the 129th rescue wing of the U.S. Air Force at California’s Moffett Federal Airfield.
“He fake sneezes,” said Jennifer, dressed in uniform as she attended one of the Heat’s “Home Strong” nights. “When he was in school and he wanted to get out of class, he would have a sneezing attack.”
OK, so that wasn’t so authentic. But Johnson’s energy? His enthusiasm? His humility? His rise? All that appears so.
And that was part of the story Tuesday, a day we’ve seen coming for some time, but which still shook some Heat fans: the day Miami dealt a mainstay to Memphis. Chalmers, traded along with James Ennis for veteran guard Beno Udrih and forward prospect Jarnell Stokes — played in more games for the Heat than all but three others, and played major minutes in many of the games that have most mattered.
Make no mistake: money was a factor here.
Although the trade doesn’t get the Heat under the luxury-tax line, doesn’t even get Miami close enough that dealing Chris Andersen alone will accomplish that, and doesn’t affect 2016 free agency in any meaningful way, the savings are still significant: roughly $6 million. But Johnson’s development was a factor, too. An enabling factor in that, absent his emergence, the Heat wouldn’t have felt comfortable moving a known quantity. A mitigating factor in that it provides cover, against accusations that the franchise is simply being frugal.
Instead, the Heat can reasonably claim that it wanted to clear a crowded backcourt. Team officials had been aware, from the summer forward, that Chalmers wasn’t thrilled about filling strictly a backup role. And they were concerned that, if he continued to lose time to Johnson, he’d become more aggravated.
What’s remarkable is that it came to this, that Johnson has overcome considerable adversity to make himself — as Spoelstra likes to say — impossible to ignore.
“Since he was 2 years old, that’s all he talked about, was ‘I’m going to be in the NBA,’ ” Jennifer said.
She says she never doubted he would, “never once,” though the journey has sometimes been bumpy. Jennifer raised five children, one older and three younger, as a single mother. She was strict with them when she was around, but they spent some time in separate homes when she was deployed. Johnson was intense on the court, tearing up when missing a layup as a high school freshman. He started 87 games at Fresno State, but the Heat — tipped off by long-time connections to his talent — believed he’d be available to them after the 2014 draft, so long as he didn’t star at the Portsmouth camp.
He didn’t. He’d taken a week off to rest a sore ankle, crammed in some workouts, and then, in his view, “just didn’t do anything”in front of scouts.
“I was just out there, kind of,” Johnson said.
So he was still out there for the Heat to snag for their summer league roster. After spirited debate, Miami kept Andre Dawkins instead, but later added Johnson to the D-League roster, then signed him to a 10-day contract, then signed him for the season. This summer, teammates like Dwyane Wade saw “a difference in his confidence,” less tendency to defer.
“He has emerged,” Wade said. “We’ve all seen it. When we got into this season, we all looked at each other and said, this guy’s made a big jump. He’s going to be important to us.”
That was evident again Tuesday. Johnson didn’t play his best, missing six of nine shots and compiling a minus-10, but had moments, whether a crossover dribble, a hit-ahead pass, a pull-up jumper, that made him seem a seasoned pro.
“All that means is I’ve got to work harder because now I know I'm going to be in there with meaningful possessions,” Johnson said. “There’s no excuse of ‘Oh, I’m just a young guy.’ This is a team that’s trying to win and make strides in the East.”
That sounded like the guy Ashley describes, someone who has stayed humble, who never assumes he’s made it.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” she said.
And if he needs fuel, there will a bowl waiting.
“I do love my Lucky Charms,” Johnson admitted later.
The Heat’s betting he’s one, too.