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Pulling his weight

Rookie Johnson eager to prove himself with the Celtics

JaJuan Johnson’s development shifted to a fast track at Purdue, where he was a first team All-American as a senior. JaJuan Johnson’s development shifted to a fast track at Purdue, where he was a first team All-American as a senior. (File/Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 24, 2011

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In basketball circles, word of mouth works at a different speed when a tall kid’s involved. Matt Painter had heard about JaJuan Johnson a few times. “People talk,’’ he said. But one key detail all but forced Purdue’s head coach to see for himself: Johnson’s height, 6 feet 10 inches.

However, Johnson didn’t start playing organized basketball until the seventh grade, which meant he was behind developmentally. He played on the B team as a high school freshman at Franklin Central in Indianapolis. He played junior varsity his sophomore year. Oh, and he was rail thin.

“He was built like a coat hanger,’’ Painter said. “Still, people talk.’’

Painter got his first look at Johnson at an open gym. He could see Johnson’s instincts, and loved his shot-blocking ability. But he couldn’t help wondering the same thing as everyone else.

“You just didn’t know how much he could fill out,’’ Painter said.

To this day, it’s been the knock on Johnson. He’s tree-top tall, but at 220 pounds he’s pipe-cleaner thin. When he was in high school, people wondered if he would ever put on weight. When he committed to Purdue, critics said he wasn’t big enough to take the beating of Big Ten competition. The Celtics took him with the 27th overall pick in last month’s draft, and he’s already been asked not only if he plans to put on weight, but precisely how much.

It took a high-profile AAU matchup against Greg Oden to sell Painter completely. Unlike Johnson, there were never questions about Oden’s build. He was 17, a year older than Johnson, but had the look of an NBA veteran. Johnson knew what he was facing.

“You don’t really need to do much to get up to play against a guy like Greg, just because back then he was definitely the No. 1 recruit in his class,’’ Johnson said. “You knew if you didn’t play well, he was going to pretty much embarrass you. So you had to give it your best shot.’’

Oden dominated, flashing all the bells and whistles that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. But Painter saw something in Johnson.

“He never backed down,’’ Painter said. “JaJuan always showed flashes, a blocked shot or a dunk. It really showed his promise. You knew he had a chance to be special. But you’re worried about the strength part of it.’’

Johnson turned that doubt into motivation.

“He probably hears it every day,’’ Painter said. “You get tired of people talking about, ‘How’s the weather up there?’ They talked about Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was that way for him. He was that skinny.’’

“When I was younger, it definitely did bother me,’’ Johnson said. “It seemed like sometimes even the way I played, it maybe overshadowed how well I was actually doing.’’

Painter brought him in and watched him grow - literally.

“He gained 30 pounds at Purdue,’’ Painter said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is he’s really strong. He benches 330 pounds.’’

Proving ground From the start, whatever Johnson got he had to scrap for. His sophomore year at Franklin Central, at which point he had been playing organized basketball for all of three years, he had the daily pleasure of matching up against Donald Washington, former Ohio State Buckeye and current Kansas City Chief. Washington was 9 inches shorter, but about 30 pounds heavier. He treated Johnson like a not-so-heavy heavy bag.

“It was rough,’’ Johnson said. “Early on in high school, I was a skinny guy. I always had somebody that was stronger beating up on me. I think that’s when I learned how to just use what I’ve got, use my length, my athleticism, those types of things. But those guys definitely didn’t take it easy on me. Never.’’

Basketball is almost a tall man’s obligation. Johnson would often hear it growing up.

“It’s always expectations that you’re supposed to be good if you’re tall,’’ Johnson said. “A lot of people assume that when they first look at you, but obviously that’s not the case all the time. I definitely got that a lot more when I was younger.’’

The game is something Johnson has always had to work at, which is fine. He bused out of his neighborhood to get to Franklin Central every day.

“I remember days I’m stretched out across the seats sleeping on the bus,’’ said Johnson. “It definitely helps you get into a routine. I’ve never had a problem getting up in the morning.’’

His building blocks were simple: run the floor, play defense. “That’s kind of what I stuck to my first few years, until I developed an offensive game,’’ he said.

He played catch-up, and over four years transformed himself from a high school B-teamer to an Indiana all-star, averaging 20.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks a game his senior season.

Still, something always overshadowed him. If it wasn’t big-name recruits such as Oden, Mike Conley, or Eric Gordon, all of whom are now in the NBA, it was the size issue.

“I always had to work myself to be one of the better players,’’ Johnson said. “At each level, I’ve always had to prove myself. That’s what keeps me even-keeled, it just always seems like I’ve got a lot of work to do.

“I just use it as motivation. I don’t let it affect me. Even though you might feel like you played better than another guy in a tournament or something, you still think, ‘Man, what do those people see that he has that I don’t.’ But I always use it to motivate myself.’’

Preparing himself When Johnson got to Purdue, the adjustment process began again. He started 17 games as a freshman, but by the second half of the season he was coming off the bench.

“Early on, he had some physical issues,’’ Painter said. “That’s what held him back that first year for us. He wasn’t ready physically to make some plays, but he was capable of making plays.’’

He had to build confidence, and build his body in the weight room. He added range to his jumper, made his pull-up and turnaround shots more reliable. He learned to shoot under duress. He became a better rebounder.

“I think the confidence really came from him feeling stronger to make those plays,’’ Painter said. “Just having that functional strength of completing plays really helped him. When you look at a guy like him who went from playing ninth grade B team to five years later he’s first team Big Ten, it’s really impressive.’’

After his junior season, in which he averaged 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds, Johnson decided to test the NBA waters.

“I just really wanted to see where I was at with the teams and what they thought,’’ he said.

Painter gathered intelligence. But it wasn’t anything Johnson hadn’t heard before.

“Everybody said the same thing,’’ Painter recalled. “There wasn’t one NBA team that didn’t say he needs to go back. Go back to school, gain weight, and get stronger.’’

But he sold it to Johnson a different way.

“Very rarely do you have a chance to be one of the faces of college basketball,’’ Painter said.

Johnson returned for his senior year. The Boilermakers went 26-8, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Virginia Commonwealth. Johnson was a consensus first team All-American.

“This is the biggest step of all,’’ Painter said. “In recruiting, everybody told him not to go to the Big Ten, that he wouldn’t make it in the Big Ten. He never missed a practice and he never missed a game. He never backed down from guys.’’

Johnson’s come to expect the questions about his weight. He’s learned the only way to answer them is with his play. He’s preparing for the NBA by putting the work in. The lockout has his hands tied, canceling summer league and threatening training camp. But he’ll train on his own.

“It’s definitely not the traditional summer that a rookie probably goes through, but you can also use this opportunity to rest yourself, work out your own game, watch film,’’ he said. “Even though you’re not with the team, you have the opportunity to do those types of things.’’

At the end of the month, Johnson will head to Attack Athletics in Chicago to work with Tim Grover, who has trained Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, and Gilbert Arenas, among others. He’ll focus on core exercises and lower-body strength. Weight won’t be an issue.

“They’d always say something about my weight,’’ he said. “Now, I just kind of use what I’ve got. I’m happy with myself. I know I definitely need to get stronger. But it’s not one of those things that I’m stressing myself over.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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