Joe Johnson is back in Atlanta and ready to get better.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
In the NBA, sometimes what a franchise player isn’t is just as important as what he is.
Hawks guard Joe Johnson was not above rejoining a team he helped build up, even if it meant adjusting his game to a revamped offense. During his previous five seasons in Atlanta, he had accepted the role of go-to guy that his talent and contract dictated, but he never did it by becoming bigger than the team.
While other teams were focused on what a max player is this summer, the Hawks saw what theirs is not. And all those qualities quickly added up.
This past offseason, new Hawks head coach Larry Drew visited the marquee free agent to explain the new offense he planned to implement. Asked about the points he made to Johnson, Drew said, “It’s a system that would allow him to continue to be himself but it also allowed him to do other things. There are parts of his game certainly I’m challenging him to enhance. He can be equally as effective without the ball as he is with the ball. That’s what this offense does, it moves bodies, it moves the ball. He doesn’t become a standstill target if we execute properly. Teams cannot just zero and lock in on him. And as I mentioned, he’s bought into it so that’s half the battle won there.”
Drew expands on Johnson’s role within the offense when he says, “He’ll spend a lot of time with the ball in his hands again, but now we have something that we can play out of with it in his hands…He’ll get an early touch but there’ll be times where he’ll give it up early as well because of the other options out of the offense…He sees where his opportunities are, he sees that it’s putting other guys in a position to be a threat, and with that it takes a little bit more pressure off of him. And once you have all five guys buying into that whole concept and that whole philosophy, it’s an offense that can be very effective.”
On what the new offense means to his personal game, Johnson says, “Moving more without the basketball, doing a lot more catch and shooting instead of just catch, isolation and going one-on-one.”
After a second-round sweep to the Magic in last season’s Playoffs, the Hawks hope to prove that their progress has not plateaued. “We just gotta be better than we were last year,” says Johnson, “You know, that’s been our motto every year and we’ve been better. I have no doubt that we’ll come back and be a lot better and stronger than we were last year.” He adds that he is “glad to be back, glad to be a part of something special here.”
The Hawks’ record has improved in each of Johnson’s five seasons with the team, including three straight playoff appearances. The Hawks will not only look for Johnson to guide the team past the second round, but also to provide guidance to younger players like second-year point guard Jeff Teague. Johnson says the advice he gives is “just to stay confident, you know every game’s not going to be a good game but you got to have a short term memory in this league and you just got to move on.” He adds, “I think Jeff Teague is a great player and he’s going to be a great point guard in this league, he just has to grow.”
Johnson says the advice he gives out is similar to what he received coming up in the NBA. “Pretty much the same thing I just said about Jeff and that’s just being confident and just play through your mistakes,” he says, “that’s what a lot of veteran guys always used to tell me so I just try to relay it down to the upcoming guys.”
As for his personal legacy, Johnson says he’d like to be thought of “just as a hard worker. A guy who loved to come out and play the game of basketball, had fun and handled his business.”
While many discount the Hawks, coming off a 53-win season, as a championship threat, Johnson is secure with the foundation he and his teammates have constructed. “As long as we believe in each other in this locker room, that’s all that matters,” he says.
With a fluid new offense and core group intact, the Hawks and their quiet franchise player will still begin this season under the radar. While the word max is loaded with implications, its definition is full of ambiguity. And if you start defining the word by what a player is not, you may find out more about who he is and what his game is about. At least that’s what the Hawks found with Joe.