As the 50th overall draft pick, the Indiana Pacers rookie Alize Johnson has an uphill climb to make an impact on an NBA roster.
That’s nothing new for him. He’s been the overlooked underdog throughout his high school and college career. His story of small high-school guard as a freshman to junior college to Missouri State is well known by Pacers fans by now.
“I have to do things different,” Johnson said before Summer League play. “Being the underdog I have to show some things that I can do consistently. Rebounding is effort. I’m all about hard work and getting into the gyms. Not really being the most athletic person, but just having the grit to go up there every time and get it is something that’s still in my blood. I have siblings back home and a family rooting for me, so when I’m up there grabbing rebounds, that’s what I’m doing it for.”
If you watched him play in Summer League, you were likely to get at least a little caught up in the Alize hype as his high-motor rebounding was on full display and his ability to start the fastbreak was a highlight of the Pacers play in Las Vegas.
“When you’re picking that deep in the draft, the likelihood of that player succeeding, the percentages are certainly working against him,” Pacers GM Chad Buchanan said after the draft, “so you look for like one trait or one skill that a guy possesses that would give him a chance. And Alize has two things for me; he has tremendous motor, and he just has an innate ability to track down rebounds.”
Pacers coach Nate McMillan caught Alize fever during the exhibition games in Vegas.
“I love his energy, he scraps,” McMillan said on the televised broadcast. “He attacks the glass. I think he’s got some Draymond Green in him. A four that’s physical, that can defend four positions.”
How he could contribute in his rookie season
There’s a very clear role that Johnson could play if the opportunity for minutes arises: do all the dirty work on the glass, give relentless energy and effort, defend well against four different positions, start the occasional fastbreak directly from rebounds and hit an occasional corner 3-pointer.
This is what he could do immediately to help the Pacers, though the 3-pointer is certainly a work in progress. Rebounding is the biggest thing, something that McMillan has put an emphasis on for this season. That’s what Johnson does best.
Kevin Pritchard said at Media Day that he’s “going to get 15 rebounds in a game.”
On offense, he would be the fifth option in almost any lineup with the Pacers roster currently. He’d get his share of points with a consistent role mostly just from grabbing offensive rebounds, but he’s not at the point where you would want him trying to create anything for himself and his jump shot has a long way to go.
Mainly his role on offense would be to create extra possessions, but McMillan said recently that one thing that he needs to work on is knowing when he can come in for that offensive board and when he needs to just get back on defense.
This was something that happened occasionally in Vegas when Johnson would aggressively go for a rebound and not get it and his man was able to get out in transition for an easy basket on the other end.
Defensively, he could be a pretty good option for a switching defense. He holds his own against guards and moves his feet well on that end. He wasn’t tested by the biggest talents in Vegas, but McMillan has praised his abilities to defend multiple positions already in camp.
What could stop him from contributing this year
The biggest hurdle to Johnson making an impact this season is opportunity. As is the case for many second-round picks (Edmond Sumner, Ike Anigbogu included), a clear path for playing time doesn’t exist and it’s hard to contribute without being on the court consistently. Lack of opportunity is the biggest breaking point for many of these players.
Here’s all of the things ahead of Johnson that will likely prevent him from playing much at all this season:
- McMillan said the team will likely play a 9-man rotation. Those players in all likelihood are Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott.
- If the Pacers play 10 players, the next most likely guys are Kyle O’Quinn and TJ Leaf. Both of whom will play the backup power forward spot over him most likely.
Injuries or poor play from a few different guys would have to happen for Johnson to even get a chance at a consistent role this year. Pritchard didn’t expect him to play much his rookie season but did say he could be someone you play in a random game in February that can provide a spark on energy when everyone is worn out.
If he gets an opportunity, there are a few things that could stop him from succeeding: his lack of shooting causing too many spacing problems for the offense, his inability to dribble with his left-hand eliminates any of those transition opportunities that he could possibly create after a rebound, doesn’t have the strength required to defend bigger power forwards yet, gets a little too aggressive on offense and turns the ball over.
Even if he doesn’t get the chance to play much this year, he’s already put on a show for fans: