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Celtics' Johnson an outsider

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 15, 2011
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WALTHAM - JaJuan Johnson’s NBA indoctrination continued yesterday, with Celtics coach Doc Rivers giving strong suggestions on the rookie’s strengths and limitations.

Despite his height (6 feet 10 inches), Johnson is a perimeter player who will rely on his above-average jump shot and ability to attack the basket on alley-oops. When the Celtics acquired Johnson’s rights from the Nets on draft night, they fully understood he was a finesse player brimming with athleticism, and they won’t try to force him to play in the paint because of their need for a backup center.

Johnson is skilled enough to help the Celtics this season. He averaged 20.6 points last year for Purdue with an impressive offensive arsenal, but with his lean frame (221 pounds), he will merely serve as an appetizer for legitimate NBA centers, so Johnson will stay on the perimeter for now.

“Up and down, he’s getting beat up,’’ Rivers said when asked about Johnson’s progress in practice. “He’s excited when he actually gets the [scrimmage] refs to come on the floor, I’ll tell you that. But he did a couple of good things today. He’s starting to learn who he is. He knows he’s a jump shooter and he’s starting to become comfortable enough to take that shot.’’

Johnson added 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game last season in being named Big Ten defensive player of the year, but much of that was accomplished on athleticism and anticipation. Most NBA big men are loaded in those categories, so the goal is to allow Johnson to gain comfort and use his skills away from the basket.

This cram session can be overwhelming at times, especially when your primary teacher is Kevin Garnett, who refers to Johnson by two terms: “Rook’’ or “New.’’ Johnson is unsure if Garnett knows his first name, and Garnett is notoriously hard on rookies. Garnett offered assistance to rookie J.R. Giddens in 2008, and after being brushed off, never offered it again.

The sponge mentality Johnson is carrying through training camp is almost essential in the presence of three future Hall of Famers. There is not a tinge of arrogance and bravado in the Indianapolis native, only humility.

“It feels great, it’s a huge learning experience and you learn something every day,’’ he said. “I definitely feel like I’m going in the right direction, learning something new every time I step on the court with these guys. So it should do nothing but help my game.’’

Assistant coach Mike Longabardi gave an instructional session on the Celtics’ defensive philosophies Tuesday to all who wanted to take part, and that included Johnson, who realizes that the club needs his defensive contributors more than his scoring.

As for battering in the paint, Johnson said Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, and Chris Wilcox aren’t the first ones to pound his wiry frame.

“I think it’s just a mind-set,’’ Johnson said. “I’ve dealt with this pretty much my whole life. I know people are going to try to be physical with me, so you’ve just got to be aggressive back.’’

Rivers has never discouraged his players from taking open shots, and that includes Rajon Rondo. And when Johnson passed up an open jumper during yesterday scrimmage, he was chided by Rivers. Johnson has displayed the ability to drain an open 15-footer, and that shot is going to be critical to his success in the NBA.

“Today was the first day when he picked-and-popped, he caught it and shot it,’’ Rivers said. “The other two days he tried to make another play and got bumped off the spot, so I think he’s starting to simplify his game.’’

When asked if he expected Johnson to generate an interior game, Rivers said, “Nah. I mean, he’ll dunk because he’s athletic as heck, so we’re going to run stuff to get him rolling to the basket and throw it up in the air and he’ll go get it. But as far as post presence? Not really, but that’s fine. We don’t need that. We’ll try to get that somewhere else.’’

Rivers stopped the scrimmage and asked Johnson if he was a shooter, and Johnson responded, “Yes.’’ So Rivers asked him why he wasn’t taking open shots.

“He just told me to take the shot,’’ Johnson said. “When your coach tells you that, obviously that’s a good thing, so I’m definitely going to try to take the shot next time.’’

Johnson’s transition has been eased by having college teammate E’Twaun Moore, the Celtics’ second-round pick, in camp. Moore already has made a positive impression on Rivers during practice.

“It just makes it a whole lot easier to have someone to talk to,’’ Johnson said. “He definitely can relate. I’ve known him since middle school and to have someone you’ve known that long makes it 100 times easier.’’

The Celtics will need both to progress rapidly to contribute in a shortened season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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