Camp chronicles: Versatile Johnson makes early impression

Amir Johnson is the favorite of our 14-man panel to start at center for the Celtics. AP Photo/Steven Senne

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When the Boston Celtics made Amir Johnson their early free-agent splurge, the move was met with raised eyebrows and maybe even some grumbles from a fan base that daydreamed of a more elite addition. What's more, Johnson played a seemingly well-stocked position and created a log jam up front that only thickened when the Celtics later acquired David Lee via trade.

Through it all, Celtics coach Brad Stevens gushed about Johnson, particularly his versatility, and stressed that he was the sort of player who would quietly make Boston a better team this season. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that, after Boston's first two-a-day session of training camp on Saturday, it was Johnson whom Stevens singled out.

"I just think there's little things that go into winning that you try to talk about, that just don't get noticed or talked about enough," Stevens said of Johnson's first full-squad practice in Boston. "We saw it [Saturday]. In a 10-minute scrimmage, I thought he was terrific defensively in a system he hasn't played in yet -- largely because he played with a motor regardless of whether he made mistakes or not.

"Then, offensively, he's just a real good team player. He can catch the ball on the seam off a pick-and-roll and make the right pass; he can catch the ball on the seam and go up and make a floater; he can dunk it on the roll; he's a good rim-runner. I think the biggest thing that probably would summarize it is, when we looked at our list of bigs at [the start of free agency] and certainly now, Amir fits with all of them. And being able to fit next to someone is a big part of this."

Maybe the biggest storyline in camp for the Celtics is how their lineups and rotation will look on a team thick with depth but thin on separation. Boston is clearly overstocked up front after bringing in Lee and Johnson to compete with a young group that already included Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, and second-round pick Jordan Mickey. While Stevens has pledged to let camp help determine who starts and earns the lion's share of minutes, it's clear that Boston's third-year coach feels a great luxury knowing that he can pair any of those bigs alongside Johnson.

And maybe that's why Johnson doesn't seem particularly worried about the competition up front. Asked if he thinks about the positional battles on the court this early in training camp, Johnson said, "Not at all. It's just learning to adjust to our players, learning the plays, learning everybody."

Pressed on the issue, Johnson added, "I've never been a player that worried about minutes. Whatever I can do to help the team win, I'm pretty much that guy."

That sort of attitude ought to keep him a Stevens favorite. As should Johnson's on-court impact. Through much of his career, he's been an advance-stats darling, with his teams tending to post better numbers when he's on the court.

Johnson will give the team some interior toughness that it previously lacked and while he's undersized at 6-foot-9, he can help protect the rim. There's concerns about the 28-year-old Johnson's durability, given some higher mileage on his prep-to-pros odometer, along with a history of ankle woes, but the Celtics protected their investment by agreeing to a modest deal (two years, $24 million) that's nonguaranteed next year.

The Celtics are more optimistic and believe they can put Johnson with lineups that will accentuate his strengths. Offensively, that'll include an endless stream of pick-and-rolls where Johnson can showcase his versatility. Heck, we might even see Johnson -- an occasional yet steady 3-point shooter in recent years -- sneak behind the arc more often in Boston. As Johnson noted, "If coach lets me shoot the 3 ball, I'll definitely pull the trigger."

Yes, it seems clear that Johnson is simply going to adapt to whatever role he's asked and his history suggests he'll find a way to make an impact, regardless of how he's utilized. Said Johnson: "I know how to adjust to anything. So whatever Coach Stevens has planned, I'll be able to adjust to it."

Johnson sees a lot of similarities between his former Toronto Raptors team and these Celtics. He pointed out how, after the departure of Chris Bosh, the Raptors endured the rebuilding woes but shuffled up to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last season. Johnson is rather bullish on Boston's prospects at a similar surge if things come together as he expects.

Said Johnson: "Once we get on the same page, I think this team is going to soar."


The Celtics engaged in a lengthy single afternoon practice on Sunday after a double session on the first day of camp. Stevens said his focus early in camp is simply on bombarding his team with technical details with a focus on the team's system and playbook, but the Celtics did engage in live 5-on-5 work during Saturday's second session.

"The first time we went live, it was exactly how we predicted -- it was awful," said Stevens, who had joked the day before about how the team would likely break some of the office windows next to the court. "But then, after that, there were a lot of good things. We played a little bit, so we have the ability to not only work off what we did, but also off of film, which is good."

Asked what his focus would be on Day 2, Stevens said, "Get better." He soon added, "There's a lot of technical focuses but that would be boring details, so to get better is the No. 1 thing. And everybody is going to make mistakes, so we got to correct our mistakes and be able to make more mistakes today that we can correct tomorrow. It's part of the process of putting together a team."

Three more quick hits from Sunday's pre-practice access:

Rozier gets noticed: Johnson was asked who stood out among rookies on Day 1 and didn't hesitate with a response: "Terry." That would be Boston's top pick, Terry Rozier. Added Johnson, "Terry is incredibly quick and athletic. He works hard; unbelievable player. The rest of the young guys are the same way: high energy. And it gets everybody going. The young guys are definitely hungry."

Caution: Nerves ahead: Boston's other first-round pick, R.J. Hunter, admitted he had some butterflies heading into his first day of NBA camp on Saturday. "You dream of being in the NBA," he said. "In your first NBA practice, you don't want to be the deer in the headlights." Hunter said the level of play has jumped up even further from his first taste of pro action at summer league, but he's trying to prove to his coaches that he can make an immediate impact at this level.

Sight for sore eyes: Kelly Olynyk's left eye is still scarred from absorbing an elbow from former teammate Shavlik Randolph during a pregame 1-on-1 game in April. When a reporter asked about his eye, Olynyk said, "That's still from last year. Yeah, Shav got me pretty good, then he just fled the country." Randolph signed in China this offseason.

Olynyk also talked a lot about playing for the Canadian national team this summer and summed it up as such: "[Playing for your national team is] something that players love to do. There's a few ways that you can represent your country on the national level: One of them is war, one them is sports, and maybe politics. So having the opportunity to do that, to put your country on your back and really fight for a whole nation is pretty special. And I wish everyone had the opportunity to do that." Canada lost a heartbreaker in the FIBA semifinals with a chance to secure their berth at Rio 2016. Added Olynyk: "The national team is a huge thing of pride and we had one goal this summer -- to qualify for the Olympics -- and I wanted to help my country do that. Unfortunately we didn't do it, but we put ourselves in position where we can do it next summer and that's big."