MIAMI — Jennifer Johnson still never forgets the day, more than 10 years ago.
While she was deployed in the East African nation of Djibouti for search and rescue missions, as part of her ongoing 14 years of U.S. Air Force service at Northern California’s Moffett Federal Airfield, she would spend time at the local orphanage and send heartwarming photos of her with the babies to her son, Tyler.
One day in August 2005, while they were having one of their long-distance phone calls, Johnson said something very profound.
“He said, ‘Mama, when I make it to the NBA, we’re going to go to Africa and adopt a baby,'” recalled Jennifer, who’s Moffett’s airfield manager. “And that always hits me because I’m always, like, ‘He had that dream at such a young age and he was never going to let anything stop him.’ That was a really big thing that has always been special to me. It was real touching.”
That dream, however, didn’t come easy.
Johnson, along with his father, Milton (who separated from the family in 2003), and four siblings, Brandon, Gabriel, Lauren and Logan, moved to six different states before he went to high school. That was because of Jennifer’s military assignments. And that led to Johnson attending seven different schools, including his high school, Saint Francis, in Mountain View, Calif., where he was the sixth man on the varsity basketball team.
Johnson, who his college coach Rodney Terry called “a late bloomer, under-the-radar kind of guy,” was only heavily recruited by Utah State and had strong interest from Fresno State, where he enrolled to stay close to home.
Even though Johnson was named to the All-Mountain West second team as a senior at Fresno State, he was barely scouted by NBA teams. He was overlooked at the 2014 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, only had three pre-draft workouts—one with the Lakers as basically a filler for lottery pick Dante Exum’s showcase—and then got one summer league invite from the Heat.
While he played well in Orlando and Las Vegas with the team, it took the D-League during the 2014-15 season and two call-ups—after an injury to Dwyane Wade—until he finally had his breakthrough moment this past February.
Now, 20 games into his second NBA season, the 23-year-old southpaw has become Wade’s everyday backup at shooting guard, which convinced Heat president Pat Riley to trade Mario Chalmers in early November as he’s become the key spark plug off the bench for one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
“I always said I wanted to play in the NBA, but I never really wanted to just be there,” said the 6’4″ Johnson over lunch recently at P.F. Chang’s in Brickell, about five minutes from AmericanAirlines Arena. “I always wanted to be a player.”
Together on Christmas in Miami, mother and son will celebrate that success together pregame on center court, where she will receive the Heat’s “Home Strong” plaque and a special holiday coin for her military service. Following the Heat’s 2006 championship season, when they used the motto “15 Strong,” the Heat have honored more than 1,000 troops and their families at more than 400 games.
Johnson has found a permanent home in Miami, but not before a life constantly on the move on and off the court, with a uncertain future in the NBA.
A Basketball Star Is Born
The first complete sentence Johnson said when he was two years old was “shoot the ball.” As Jennifer remembered, “He would have a ball in his hands at all times—a basketball, football, soccer ball, whatever it was—and he would just chuck it across the room.”
Now, Johnson’s son, Dameon, who’s two and has a tiny Heat shirt of his dad, is reenacting some of the same moves.
“He definitely has a little hoop. I went and got that before he could even walk, and he dunks any toy,” said Johnson while chowing down on beef lo mein and egg rolls. “We have pictures of me at the same age as him trying to dunk. He comes to all the games with my fiancee, Ashley.”
Johnson was born with athleticism from the family genes. Jennifer played different sports in school and Milton, who only played in church and recreational basketball leagues, was “super athletic,” Johnson said. And Brandon, who’s one year older than Tyler at 24, could run a 4.3 time in the 40-yard dash, and not even train.
“I couldn’t even come close,” said Johnson, whose siblings Gabriel (sixth grade), Lauren (Chico State) and Logan (Saint Francis) all play basketball competitively. “He had like one of the highest times in the state, and he didn’t go because he was in the school play. The kid was unreal. He could dunk in the seventh grade.”
Before Johnson first dunked as a 5’8″ freshman in high school, he was already impressing locals as an adolescent. One day, when he was in sixth grade living in Northern California, a neighbor named Cliff made a bet with him that he could make a long basketball shot.
“He was, like, ‘I’ll give you 100 bucks if you can make it from all the way across the street,'” Jennifer said. “And, of course, he made it on the first attempt.”
Johnson had a special gift for sports.
“I remember I put him in soccer in second or third grade and I told him, ‘You can’t be the best at everything,'” Jennifer said. “I just wanted to make sure he understood that not everything you are good at; some things you have to work at. He had never played soccer, but in his first game he scored five goals and I was, like, ‘I can’t teach him.’ He was just that kid. He was just all-around athletic and understood good eye-hand coordination.”
Johnson also gained confidence from taking acting and modeling classes with abc Model and Talent between six and seven years old while living in Spokane, Wash. All the way through elementary school, he performed in talent shows singing and dancing, as well as acted in school plays. In a play about a dog, he was the main character.
He always believed in himself, even after just two weeks of moving to Northern California when he was in fourth grade. He tried to run for vice president of the student council, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t in his first year at the school. The following year, he landed the role.
But stability was not in Johnson’s favor. After he was born in Grand Forks, N.D., the family moved to Minneapolis, Minn.; Wichita Falls, Tex.; back to Grand Forks; Spokane; Biloxi, Mississippi; back to Spokane; and then finally found a permanent home in Northern California. Johnson also had a learning disability growing up that he overcame over time, and he eventually graduated college in four years with a Communications degree.
Another obstacle was Jennifer raising her five children on her own starting in 2003, without Milton around much. For some of the five times she was deployed, which would be for three to six months each, she had different families in the area take care of her children. The families would provide food and clothing for them.
“I wouldn’t say we were really poor, but we didn’t really have a whole lot,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t pay to go to Warriors’ basketball camp, and I wrote them a letter. They sent me an e-mail and they said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I was just happy to go to camp.”
Basketball was Johnson’s escape.
“From everything,” he said. “Everybody’s just got stuff going on, everybody’s got things in their life that they’re always worrying about. But when you’re doing something that you love to do, you don’t think about any of that.”
He just thought about how hoops could change his family’s life, inspired to make the NBA from watching how hard his mother worked as a single parent.
“He said that he was going to the NBA on an everyday basis,” Jennifer said. “He always believed he was going. There would be tough times and he’d just be, like, ‘Mom, don’t worry. Just give it a few more years. I’ve got you.’ When he got his first NBA paycheck, he sent me money. He’s very big on taking care of his family. This year, he paid for Gabriel’s braces and helped pay for his siblings’ cars.”
Basketball Never Stops
While Johnson had the athletic tools, he had to work to get his skills up to par. And he took that work to a whole other level.
After only averaging 16.9 minutes and 4.4 points per game his freshman season at Fresno State, coach Rodney Terry took over the team the following year. And Johnson was ready to make his new boss a believer. He did during one of their first practices.
Johnson showed Terry how much he cared in another moment that year, when the team entered a game-winning situation in one of the three overtimes against Nevada on Feb. 25, 2012. Terry drew up an isolation play for Johnson, and his midrange jumper came up short on the front of rim. In one of the later periods, Fresno State lost, 79-76.
“We go back in our locker room and he is bawling out,” Terry said. “This dude is crying at another level sitting right in front of me. But the message I had to the team was, ‘When you care that much, and it means that much to you, we have a chance to be really good because of that.'”
Later that night, Johnson was all by himself inside the home arena, Save Mart Center, working on his step-back move that he’s honed—especially his half spin into a step back when he drives left—in the NBA. As a college upperclassman, Johnson didn’t go anywhere without his water jug, and he was always in the gym and weight room into the wee hours, using the Shoot A Way Gun machine. He’s been the same way ever since, sometimes working on his game on the Heat’s practice court until 2 a.m.
“If I have a bad shooting night or I don’t play particularly well, I just go upstairs and shoot it out so I can get over it,” said Johnson, whose favorite player is Kobe Bryant for his competitive nature. “I go by myself. I shoot as many shots until I’ve figured it out.”
During his senior year, when he made 43.2 percent from three-point range—the sixth-highest single-season mark in school history—Terry called him “the hardest guy to guard in our league.” Terry said he had developed into a vocal leader, a very shifty player with the ball and one who played balls-out defense.
And he was able to have his best campaign as a senior while managing a difficult schedule with Ashley so they could care for their newborn. One of them would spend time with Dameon while the other had class. They didn’t do daycare, they didn’t hire a nanny—all on their own, and they both graduated on time, while Johnson was also fitting in sand-dune runs in San Francisco and late-night shooting sessions at Stanford.
“The drive never stopped,” Jennifer said. “He just continued to fight until he made it.”
To celebrate his career at Fresno State, the team added him to an alumni portrait they have in their locker room, which includes Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George and Greg Smith, who played for the Mavericks last season.
“He was always doing all the extra,” Terry said. “I said to my guys when he left going into the next season, ‘Who’s going to be our next Tyler Johnson, because the legacy that he left you guys was how hard you have to work?’ He’s in there for an hour and a half shooting at night getting ready for the game, he’s the first guy at shootaround and the last guy to leave. ‘Who’s going to be that guy?'”
The Dream Becomes A Reality
NBA agent Pedro Power’s focus is finding sleeper or overlooked talents to represent. He felt he found “a diamond in the rough” when he saw Johnson play on TV one day in November 2013, and then in person at that month’s MetroPCS Orange Bowl Basketball Classic in South Florida.
“I know a lot of people would say, ‘Maybe because of his height he’s too small to be a 2-guard in the NBA,'” Power said. “But just with his aggressiveness that he has, the kid plays like he’s 6’10”.”
While a few other agents approaching Johnson were recommending the overseas route, Power was convinced his prospective client was good enough for the NBA with some seasoning. He needed to improve his handle, increase the arch in his shot and decision-making in pick-and-rolls, according to his summer trainer Cody Toppert.
“My initial impression of him was a player in the upper echelon European league,” said Toppert, an assistant coach with the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Johnson was also realistic with Power.
“The only reason why I even talked about overseas was people could see me more and people could have more footage, because [Fresno State] didn’t play national TV games,” Johnson said. “We barely played any TV games, so it can be written off, like, ‘Oh, he’s not in a very strong conference.’ I just needed an opportunity.”
But Power had his work cut out for him.
“He was not on any NBA radar,” Power said. “It’s funny—I would talk to some scouts and talk to some NBA teams, and they were, like, ‘Tyler who?’ They didn’t even know who he was.”
Power was able to schedule three pre-draft workouts for Johnson: with the Lakers and Warriors because they were more local to Johnson’s hometown, and a third and final one with the Heat, as he was already training in Miami.
“All I wanted was one workout. I just needed one workout. I ended up getting three,” Johnson said. “For me, that was a huge deal.”
According to Johnson, while he thought he did well at the first two, the Lakers’ priority was Exum and the Warriors’ main front office personnel were not present to evaluate. So he didn’t feel he had a fair shot with either team.
With the Heat, however, Riley and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra were on hand for Johnson’s workout, and the team was lacking depth at shooting guard. In addition, the Heat had done their homework on Johnson, who was scouted by vice president of player personnel Chet Kammerer (who called him “an intriguing prospect”) and assistant general manager Adam Simon, who had a good relationship with Terry and Power, who’s based in Miami.
Right off the bat, Johnson had a big dunk over someone during one of the first drills, and he had high energy the rest of the workout.
“He called me right after and goes, ‘Man, I killed that workout,'” Power said.
“I didn’t necessarily knock down shots, but I just played really well,” Johnson said. “And I had a good interview after.”
Afterwards, the Heat added Johnson to their Orlando and Vegas summer league rosters. And he continued full-speed-contact training and video analysis with Toppert at the Elev8 sports institute in Delray Beach, Fla., working out three times per day.
“He still wanted more,” said Toppert, who has worked with Jae Crowder, Shaun Livingston, D’Angelo Russell, Marcus Smart and dozens of other up-and-comers in the NBA. “He wants to go get extra shooting sessions at night. He was hungry. He had that chip on his shoulder.”
Johnson was so dedicated to his craft that even this past summer after working out with Heat assistant coach Chris Quinn, he would drive more than a hour north to see Toppert. That meant afterwards sometimes sitting in rush-hour traffic for two hours or more just to get back home.
A key benefit to spending time at Elev8 in 2014 was Johnson learned offensive sets the Heat actually ran, even before anyone knew he’d be joining the team. The two main sets—which start off in a “horns” formation with the point guard above the break and the two big men on each elbow—are called “loop action” (shifting the defense to one side to clear the opposite side for a two-man game) and “twirl action” or “double away” (involving multiple screens in one corner of the court and ending with a two-man game).
The Heat’s actions are perfectly suited for the high-energy Johnson because he’s having to run to different sections of the court to set up for a shot or set up someone else for one, and then he can receive the ball in a pick-and-roll as a playmaking combo guard.
“The kid always sets great screens and he cuts hard, and that causes disruption within the defense,” Toppert said. “He doesn’t have a hard time finding a rhythm because he plays hard from the jump, and he’s not putting pressure on himself to do stuff that he’s not capable of doing.”
Johnson smiles about how some of that energy comes from his bowl of Lucky Charms that he eats every night before he goes to sleep. “Just superstition,” he said. “It’s my favorite cereal.” On game days, he always drinks B Natural Juice and a pre-workout supplement.
That instant burst of effectiveness was evident in his second Orlando summer league game in 2014. After not playing in the first, the following day he scored 14 points in 13 minutes in a win over the Nets. And his immediate production continued throughout the offseason.
“He came in and played at a high level,” said Andy Elisburg, the Heat’s senior vice president of basketball operations. “And we said, ‘We need to find a way to sign him.’ Day after day he was pretty much making an impact.”
Power added, “After summer league when Tyler really started making a name for himself, a lot of the teams called me and apologized. They were saying that their West Coast scout did not ever report anything about him or didn’t even notice him.”
The only hiccup after Vegas summer league was that the Heat were taking a while to extend a contract, according to Power, and Johnson had an attractive $150,000 net offer from the ICL Manresa basketball club in the highly competitive Spanish ACB league. After Power called Simon one night in early August 2014 to tell him that Johnson had committed to ICL Manresa, 30 minutes later things had changed.
Power and Simon finished negotiating a two-year deal that included $75,000 guaranteed for training camp and $25,000 if Johnson was sent down to the Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
“I just wanted a shot to play in the NBA because I knew I could play with the guys coming out, guys who were there,” Johnson said. “I just told Pedro that I wanted an opportunity, and I got it.”
Not only did Johnson get that opportunity, but he also took advantage of every small window he had last season: totaling 17 points, four rebounds, four steals and two assists in his only preseason game; averaging 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 steals and one steal in 15 starts with the Skyforce; and then after getting called up a second and final time by the Heat, finishing with 13 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in a win over the Celtics on Feb. 1, 2012—just his second game during his second 10-day contract while Wade was hurt.
“He’s always playing hard,” Elisburg said. “He went to our D-League affiliate, and sometimes there’s a hangover from players. But Tyler went down there and said, ‘I’m going to be a great player and do everything I need to do, on the court and in the community.’ And we said we need to get him back.”
Getting Settled in Miami
On Nov. 10, the Heat traded longtime guard Chalmers to the Grizzlies. That night at AmericanAirlines Arena, after the Heat beat the Lakers, Jennifer, who was in attendance, met Riley for the first time. What he told her in their one-on-one chat was poignant.
“He said, ‘You do understand why we traded him?'” Jennifer recounted. “I said, ‘How do I answer that question? Yeah, I understand.’ He said, ‘Because we believe in Tyler. I really believe that the future is with Tyler.’ And I’m, like, ‘Wow.'”
Johnson is currently the Heat’s most accurate perimeter shooter (52 percent from the floor and 45.7 percent from three-point range), and in most of his defensive plays—covering the pick-and-roll ball-handler—he’s rated “very good” by Synergy Sports for holding those opponents to 0.684 points per play. Power and Toppert both noted that his confidence in Year 2 is much higher.
Johnson said he evaluates himself across the stat sheet. “Playing well or not doesn’t strictly depend on if I shoot well,” he said. His personal growth areas are consistency and leading the second group. His mentality has always been who cares if I start; I care to finish the game.
“I want to be more of a point guard than just a scorer,” he said. “Now I’m having to worry about getting other guys going first, knowing when to attack to pass or attack to shoot.”
Johnson has been learning a lot from Wade, who sits next to him in the locker room. They’ll watch film together and Johnson will usually just listen, as Wade will pause the tape at times to say, “Maybe look to do this, maybe look to do that.” Johnson said he wants to one day master Wade’s anticipation moves, like his Eurostep and head fakes, but right now he’s “more reacting than anticipating.”
What stays with Johnson is his sense of internal pressure, wanting to do more. It’s burned inside of him as his journey has never been easy, and it’s still far from complete. Sometimes when he tries to get in the zone before a game, he feels angry, almost too focused. And that’s when he listens to house music—typically Calvin Harris—to stay loose.
“It’s just more wanting to do so well and knowing how good I could be, but not being at the point where I could show it yet or not getting the results I wanted for the work that I put it in,” he said. “Naturally when you sometimes need to try harder, sometimes you just kind of over push yourself. I’ve had plenty of those moments.”
Off the court, he finds relaxation time with Dameon and Ashley, who he plans to marry next summer or in 2017. And he cooks for them, his biggest hobby that he learned when Jennifer was away for work. He can go from a Philly cheesesteak to any kind of pasta—he loves pesto sauce—to his signature dish: chicken with onions, jalapeños and bell peppers, topped with Italian dressing.
“I can make anything; I’m not limited,” said Johnson, who watches the Food Network religiously. “I’m still at the point where I’ve got to kind of follow a lot of recipes, but there are some things just based off of memory. And if I make it once, I have a pretty good idea on how to make it again.”
Johnson enjoys Rosa Mexicano in Brickell—”I love their guacamole,” he said—and the popular athlete and celebrity steakhouse, Prime 112, in Miami Beach. His latest crave is Benihana on the beach, and he gets a nice perk. “The manager actually gives me his discount,” he said. “He will cut off like 50 percent.”
While Johnson is finding that more people in Miami recognize him, some are still stuck in between.
“After we played the Knicks [on Nov. 23], I was just walking around close to my building trying to find something to eat, and I found a little spot that was open,” he said. “And a man said, ‘You look a lot like Tyler Johnson.’ I get that a lot. He was trying to figure it out for a little while, and then he was talking about me. He’s, like, ‘That kid’s a good player.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, he is.’ I was actually engaged in it. I was actually messing with him a little bit. He was a fan; he just didn’t know.”
Come Christmas, the Johnson’s will all be together at the Heat-Pelicans game. When they’re back in California, they’ll FaceTime each other when Johnson is playing or watch his games at the local BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. He even has a following in Africa, where Jennifer’s colleagues tune in inside their dining facility. Jennifer and her son have actually resumed their conversation about adopting a baby one day.
And perhaps one day, Milton will have a role again in his life. “He’s trying and I think that’s very important,” Jennifer said. “I’m happy about that.” Milton hasn’t really been around for 10 years. The last time he talked to his son was during his junior year at Fresno State. Johnson teared up then. “There’s a chance for it to turn around,” Jennifer said. Milton hopes to see his son at the Heat-Warriors game on Jan. 11.
For now, Johnson is looking to get healthy and return on Christmas Day, as he’s missed the last three games to rest his left shoulder, which will likely require surgery next summer, according to Power. It will be to fix an impingement to an area where he’s experienced discomfort since his college days.
But playing through pain and to the point of exhaustion is nothing new to Johnson. He’s been weighed down by so many things—his family challenges, the birth of his child, being a basketball outcast, a broken jaw this past summer and more—but has managed to keep his dream alive, and it’s just starting to blossom.
“He puts his whole heart into it, and those guys are hard to find,” Terry said. “Tyler’s a guy that has a great success story, and I tell guys about him all the time.”
Jared Zwerling is the Senior Multimedia Writer for the NBA Players Association, bringing an extensive basketball background from his time at the NBA, ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and most recently Bleacher Report. Follow Jared on Twitter and Instagram.