Just three seasons ago, Elton Brand was brought in as a player on a 10-72 Sixers team to be a mentor to rookie big man Jahlil Okafor. Brand was not there to play; he was there to be a sagacious veteran for the younger players. After his first NBA game, Okafor was involved in an altercation in the streets of Boston. A short while later, he was caught going over 100 miles per hour in a Porsche on the Ben Franklin Bridge. It was clear that the young man needed a bit of guidance. Enter Elton Brand, who lent his Range Rover to Okafor during the worst weather of the season and served as “Jahlil’s vet.”
Four years later, while Okafor is no longer a Sixer, he’s not making headlines that make you want to shake your head in disappointment. He’s just living quietly as he tries to make it in the NBA.
Elton Brand has upgraded his position. He’s now the GM of the Sixers, and Amir Johnson is now the veteran mentor. There are other veterans on the roster who can play significant minutes, and Amir Johnson is out of the rotation. So, Amir elected to play for the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, to find a rhythm for himself as he awaits his next opportunity to play for the Sixers.
After a difficult loss to the Red Claws, Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson spoke on the impact that Amir Johnson has on a locker room. As it turns out, Amir Johnson is perhaps one of the most important players on the team. While he is not versatile in his athleticism, Amir is versatile in his role.
During film sessions, my high school basketball coach used to ask, “Are you a brick or a sponge?” The metaphor was that a brick deflects, while a sponge absorbs. Are you going to let the coach teach you, or are you going to be difficult?
According to Connor Johnson, the young players around Amir were the perfect sponges. When Amir walked in to the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware this morning, he was ready to teach and the players were ready to absorb. “It’s cool for our guys to talk to,” Connor Johnson said. “Before we came in, we introduced him, and we went through his career and what he’s done to be successful, and so our guys get a chance to learn from him and be around him. Our guys get to be around him and try to absorb as much as they can be to be successful. It was a cool experience for our guys. He had a great attitude.” Evidently, Amir wasn’t there just to get some run in, he was there to help the aspiring-NBA players as well.
A lot of NBA egos can’t handle the idea of being “sent down” to the G-League. They separate themselves and focus on doing whatever it is that they think they have to do. That might mean compromising the team’s system to fit around the player trying to dominate. Not Amir. Connor Johnson explained, “If you could choose someone to come in and fit seamlessly, bring great energy, he’d be at the top of the list.” Both on the court and off the court, Amir just wants to help his team win any way he can.
Intelligence and Influence
Some players make it on athleticism, some make it on skill, and some make it by thinking their way through the game. This can result in high-impact play despite a lack of athleticism or skill. Amir Johnson has survived fourteen years in the harsh, unforgiving NBA because of his intelligence.
When his skill began to fade, he relied on the positive impact he has on a team culture to stick around.
According to Connor Johnson, there are neither many brighter basketball minds nor better people than Amir Johnson. He said, “He’s one of the smartest players we’ve ever been around, and he knows how to play, and he knows also how to fit in and be a positive influence in the locker room. Everything he does on the court, I think, speaks for itself. But on the backside, put an arm around a guy and talk to a younger player, keeping the energy and camaraderie, and I saw a lot of that last year, and that made me excited when they said he was coming.” Amir provides the perfect mix of basketball intelligence on the court and positive energy off the court.
Perhaps the best trait in Amir Johnson’s repertoire is his attitude. A lot of NBA players, scorned by a G-League assignment, hurt their club more than they help by the selfish way in which they play and carry themselves. Not Amir. “I think there are a lot of lessons for our guys to be learned about Amir’s willingness to come down and then how he handled himself when he was here,” Coach Johnson said. “A lot of guys come down to the G-League and they’re programmed. They don’t really understand what it’s there for, and the point is that we provide a competitive environment. For a lot of guys, it’s about development; for Amir, it’s about getting into a rhythm. Hopefully, when he goes back to the Sixers, he feels like he got that.”
It’s easy to dismiss Amir Johnson because of his struggles when given opportunities to play this season. Maybe he needed to reset by requesting a G-League assignment. Maybe he’s just inching closer to the realization that his time in the NBA may end sooner than expected. But even when he can no longer help on the court, what he brings off the court has no time limit.