Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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  • Hector Amezcua /

    James Johnson drives to the basket Monday against Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge.

  • Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings' Johnson willing to fight for starting role

Published: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

James Johnson thrusts out his hands and points to his feet, then flashes an easy grin. He has all the tools, he insists.

His hands can cradle a basketball and slice through wood. His feet enable him to run like a sprinter, obstruct the path of opposing ballhandlers and launch a 41-inch vertical leap. His size, length and athleticism – huge assets when he was a martial arts champion in his youth – offer the dimensions of a prototypical NBA small forward.

But is he more than just another guy doomed for a bench role?

Small forward has been a problem since Peja Stojakovic's back went out and the Kings refused to gamble long term on Ron Artest.

Francisco Garcia. John Salmons. Donté Greene. Omri Casspi. Greene again. Salmons again. Tyreke Evans. Travis Outlaw. Terrence Williams.

With Evans returning to the backcourt alongside Aaron Brooks or Isaiah Thomas, the three spot is back on the vacancy listings. Hence the offseason acquisition of Johnson.

"I think James has the potential to really help us defensively," said Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie, who obtained the third-year pro from Toronto for a second-round pick. "His perimeter game needs to get better, but there are a lot of good parts to his game. He's active, he blocks shots, he takes pride in his defense."

That passion for defense, coupled with his physical attributes, gives Johnson an edge. Coach Keith Smart has been crooning the same tune: There are too many princes on his roster. Smart wants players who are willing to chase loose balls, muscle through screens, apply pressure and absorb contact underneath, and who realize that repeating as the league's worst defensive team isn't an option, it's a job killer.

That shaky jumper aside, effort and energy won't be issues with the 6-foot-9 Johnson, who was born in Southern California but grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo. After Johnson failed to establish himself on a talented and crowded Chicago Bulls team or overcome an uneasy relationship with Raptors coach Dwane Casey, he sees the offseason trade to Sacramento as his first career break.

Beware, Johnson warns only half-jokingly. He will come out of the starting lineup kicking and screaming. The son of an African American ex-Marine (Willie) and a Samoan mother (Vi) who came to the United States when she was 17, Johnson has six brothers and two sisters, and all but one has a black belt in martial arts.

Before Johnson committed to basketball and football in high school, the Cheyenne East prep standout won seven world karate titles, nine national championships, and was 20-0 as a kickboxer. Once, while touring with an AAU team from Denver, he rushed home and volunteered for a mixed martial arts bout sponsored by his father, who owns J&P's Martial Arts; he won in less than two minutes.

"We all fight," said Johnson, who is pleasant and engaging. "Even my mom has a black belt. … Most of my Samoan cousins and family members played football. I was a wide receiver in high school, and I actually got more (scholarship) offers in football than basketball. But I wanted to do something different."

After earning All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in his two seasons at Wake Forest, Johnson was selected in the NBA draft at No. 16 by Chicago, and he credits coach Tom Thibodeau with convincing him to become a better defender and more versatile player.

In three preseason games with the Kings, Johnson has been that – a quality defender with a varied skill set and occasional explosiveness. On Wednesday against Golden State, after missing two open jumpers, he curled into the lane and threw down a monstrous one-handed dunk. Moments later, he came in from the weakside and swatted away a shot.

"I will hold it down on the defensive end," Johnson said, "and I will shoot better than I have. I came into the league as a scorer. But the most important thing is to win and … I feel like this is a great place for me."

Already, he is hearing from Samoans at Sleep Train Arena.

"They recognize the tattoo on my leg, that's of my mother's tribe," Johnson said.

As for those leg kicks and karate-chop demonstrations? He laughs; one day when he's in the right mood.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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