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September 14, 2014

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Despite MMA background and black belt, Bulls’ Johnson now focused solely on hoops

Chicago first-round pick puts rare combination of size and athleticism on display in pro debut

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Sam Morris

Chicago Bulls forward James Johnson takes a breather during a contest against Golden State in NBA summer league action on Tuesday at Cox Pavilion. Johnson, the 16th overall pick in last month’s NBA Draft, relies on a heavy background in kickboxing, karate and mixed martial arts to play light on his feet at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds.

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Chicago forward James Johnson drives through the heart of the Golden State defense during the Bulls' 95-83 loss on Tuesday afternoon in NBA summer league play. The first-round pick out of Wake Forest scored 21 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in his pro debut at Cox Pavilion.

Chicago rookie forward James Johnson showed up to Cox Pavilion for his NBA summer league pro debut on Tuesday afternoon thinking much the same way his favorite fighter — heavyweight mixed martial artist Frank Mir — showed up to the Octagon for the UFC 100 main event down the street last weekend.

Both came to win.

Instead, both lost.

That's not all that the two athletes have in common. It even goes beyond Johnson's appearance resembling an intimidating fighter, complete with a pseudo-mohawk, a steely stare and tattoo-clad upper arms.

"He can fight up top, he can choke you out, he can do it all," said Johnson, who tallied 21 points and 8 rebounds in Chicago's 95-83 loss to Golden State. "That's kinda like my basketball game."

Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound Wake Forest product who the Bulls selected 16th overall in last month's NBA Draft, was raised in Cheyenne, Wyo., with a fighter's mentality.

Well, actually, he was raised to be a fighter.

Johnson's father, Willie, runs J&P Martial Arts School in Cheyenne, Wyo. He's a sixth-degree black belt kickboxer. His mother, Vi, is also a black belt.

James is smack dab in the middle of nine children in his family. All but his youngest sister, 10-year-old Kiandra, are black belts. Kiandra will catch up soon enough, though. She's already earned a blue belt.

But Johnson isn't just trained in mixed martial arts. He's undefeated when he performs.

With an amateur kickboxing record of 20-0 and seven world karate titles to his name — oh, nine national titles, as well — he fought his first amateur MMA bout as in 2006, when a local event needed a last-second substitute on its card.

Just a high school junior fighting in the 205-pound weight class, it took him all of 90 seconds to defeat 31-year-old Damond Clark, a Casper, Wyo. native who now fights professionally.

It's hard to believe that all of this came before heading off to college, where in two seasons, he helped lead the Demon Deacons to a 41-20 record, averaging 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Still, what came on Tuesday was completely new. And despite an individual performance that was deemed by many onlookers to be dazzling, he sounded like a defeated prizefighter when asked to describe it.

"I'm not happy with the performance," he said. "I wanted to win. I came down here to Las Vegas to win. I know the guys on my team are not satisfied. I'm definitely not satisfied, but we're gonna push hard, keep pushing each other, work hard and get some more wins hopefully."

The Bulls play four more games this week, but the organization's brass on hand for Johnson's pro debut appeared pleased and sang his praises.

"It seems like he's athletic for his size — a guy with that much bulk and that much weight who can move and handle the ball and things," said Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro. "His agility, obviously, is impressive for a guy with his size. That'll just improve. We've gotta get a little weight off of him, and he knows that, but he does things you can't teach.

"I haven't seen any film on him fighting, but I'm not worried about him. His dad's the one you've got to worry about."

He showed several of those natural gifts to a crowd that saw him as a relative unknown coming in, having not played much in the national spotlight at Wake Forest.

Even this past season, when Wake at one point earned a No. 1 ranking in both major polls, it was teammates Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu who garnered much of the spotlight.

Johnson displayed abilities indicating that he could very easily play either the small forward or power forward position in the NBA.

A couple of times, he scored in tough fashion inside. A couple of times, he put the ball on the floor and spotted up outside, knocking down 16-foot jumpers without the aide of the rim.

Other times, he did it all on his own.

Johnson's most impressive play of the day came with 6:09 left in the second quarter, when he grabbed an uncontested defensive rebound off of a missed free throw. He put the ball on the floor and moved onward with a full head of steam.

At the top of the key, he crossed a Warriors defender over to the left, went back right, penetrated the paint and threw down a nasty two-handed slam that forced the crowd to erupt.

With his combination of size and grace, he said he'd like to see himself develop into the same type of player as a Carmelo Anthony or Paul Pierce. His buttery shooting touch both inside and out showed that it's more than possible.

At just 22 years old, he believes he's not even close.

"I'd probably say a C-plus," he said of where his total package is at. "It needs work, man. I need work. That's what it is."

What's going to obviously help that process along, however, is the way he's been able to translate his karate and MMA training onto the hardwood, as he plays lighter on his feet than just about any 6-foot-8 player you'll find, either pro or amateur.

"Quickness, hand quickness, foot quickness, I try to utilize that," he said. "Other than that, just growing up using footwork all of my life, coming out here is kind of easy."

From a mental aspect, he appears to be every bit a fighter. Most championship-caliber mixed martial artists are known for a down-to-earth approach and humility.

However, he said his basketball endeavors have commanded more discipline than fighting.

"Fighting, you're one-on-one," he said. "It's you against him. You don't have to worry about backside help or helping another guy who gets beat. It's just you against the other dude. Basketball's teamwork, a lot of talking and other things I need to get better at."

Fighting has made Johnson who he is at this young age. There's no questioning that.

But Johnson isn't ready to call fighting simply a part of his past. He's indicated recently that he's not done with his first love, but for now it has to be on the burner.

Obviously, hoops is what's going to pay the bills. He signed his first pro contract before departing for Vegas, making him an instant millionaire.

"Fighting is fighting — I did it all my life," he said. "Right now, it's a new chapter. I'm gonna try to write this chapter, then whatever happens happens.

Right now, I'm just focused on keeping my skills sharp on defense. That's it, and I'll worry about the other thing ... It's like riding a bike. Fighting's like riding a bike. It's gonna be easy to get back into it, so when it's time for me to get back into it, I will. Until then, I'm just gonna keep grinding out here on the hardwood."

That doesn't mean Johnson isn't following the fight game.

He didn't get into town early enough for the monstrous UFC 100 event at Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday night, but he watched it at home on pay-per-view.

Oddly enough, his favorite moment of the night came from watching Brock Lesnar defeat Mir.

"Brock — I liked Brock's swag, man," he said. "He's a crazy dude. He's a big ol' country bumpkin, dude. He's serious, though."

Like seemingly everyone else who even heard about the fight, too, he chimed in with his thoughts on Lesnar's WWE-like antics after the fight, which included taunting Mir to his face and flipping some obscene hand gestures to the booing fans, among other eccentricities.

"Uncharacteristic, but that's his swagger," he continued. "You have to be nasty in the cage. You don't want somebody coming up challenging you. You see that, would you want to challenge him? No. That's probably why he did it, so I respect it, but at the same time, his character wasn't very ... he didn't have to say some of the things he said, but some of the things he said put fear in people's eyes, man."

Whether it comes on a basketball court or on a canvas mat, don't expect to ever see Johnson putting on a postgame show like Lesnar treated the world to on Saturday.

As gifted and rare as Johnson is at his size, he's all about developing the craft and staying humble — a lesson he learned earlier than most pro athletes.

"I'm not worried about who sees me and who doesn't," he said. "I'm playing basketball for me and the love of the game. It's good not to sign 100 autographs. I'm walking into these places. I love just going up to my room and being a regular dude. That's what I want to be, no matter how much fame I get or don't get. I just wanna be a regular dude."

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