James Johnson has played just 58 minutes for the Indiana Pacers this season. His impact on the field was minor for the team. But it was needed, and it pales in comparison to Johnson’s off-pitch influence for blue and gold.
Johnson signed a no-guarantee contract with Indiana this summer. His place in the team was not promised – he had to earn it at training camp. And he did it thanks to both good boot camp performances and veteran talent.
Since then, it has only proven its worth. Johnson appeared in just six games and played just over 150 seconds in four of them. But in these four games, they all have a positive plus and minus, and when he plays, the Pacers are 4-2. His toughness and defense have been a boost to the team.
Half of his opportunities to play came against his old team, the Brooklyn Nets. Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle enjoys knowing Johnson’s previous team’s inclinations and sets. Either way, every time Johnson checks in for blue and gold, the team’s resolve changes. Everything is done with a little more power.
“James Johnson comes out of the bench tonight and he was a real man there. “It was great to see that after last week’s game against the Brooklyn Nets,” Carlisle said. “We got to a point in the second half where we needed real attitude, real power and seasoned technical knowledge… it came and it was great. He was great on defense. And it keeps the game flowing on offense.”
That’s what Johnson did for the Pacers. He faced San Antonio earlier in the season and gave Indiana key minutes leading. He’s also done that against the Nets a few times and hardened against the Lakers earlier this week. On the field, Johnson gave a lot of blue and gold.
But Johnson’s true worth comes off the field. Throughout the season, many Pacers players praised Johnson’s ability to hold the team together and lead in the locker room. A young team needs that.
“He’s amazing. He really helped bring the team together… that’s what you need guys,” center Goga Bitadze said of Johnson. Bitadze and Johnson worked together after occasional workouts, including three-on-three sessions.
Johnson has played for several NBA teams, and the Pacers are his tenth different team. He has appeared on winning and losing teams and has made the Eastern Conference Finals in the past. Essentially, he’s seen it all in the NBA.
The Pacers exceeded all expectations this season at 12-8. But they are in a new era and they are growing every match. Johnson has spent time on thriving but not yet competitive Kings, Timberwolves and Pelicans rosters. He’s been in this situation before and he knows what a team like the 2022-23 Pacers needs.
“I know my role on this team. We have great players, we have great scorers,” Johnson said earlier in the season.
Several players noted that Johnson was an effective glue man in the locker room and on the bench during games. He knows what to say and has a good relationship with Rick Carlisle based on their time together in Dallas.
“He doesn’t let things slide,” senior guard TJ McConnell said of Johnson. McConnell is another excellent vet for Indiana, and even he had something uplifting to say about the veteran forward’s leadership. “Usually, there are guys who just let things run their course. But I feel like he owes us not to create bad habits here.”
This strategy works. The Pacers are a close-knit group, and Carlisle recently said that the team’s superpower is connectivity. Johnson played a big part in this.
The 35-year-old noted that the Pacers are closer than some other teams and this is a necessary part of their strong start to the season.
“A lot of people [in the NBA] fake like each other … I feel like we don’t have that on this team,” Johnson said of the Pacers. “I think we really respect each other’s work ethic… secondly, we’re vulnerable enough to tell someone else they’re wrong or say so when we can hold each other accountable. And it’s a completely different level of relationship.”
Holding others accountable is something McConnell noted that Johnson did well. The senior striker practices what he preaches. That’s why he was invaluable to the Pacers off the court, and combined with his on-court reinforcements, James Johnson was a necessary piece for this young Indiana team.