Clippers’ Brice Johnson, left, pulls the ball away from Lakers’ Ivica Zubac during the second half of an NBA summer league game Friday in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Brice Johnson can’t forget the season he lost. The 6-foot-10 power forward still wonders what might have happened if he hadn’t suffered a herniated disk in his back in an exhibition game in October, still imagines the effect he might have had on the Clippers, who drafted him at No. 25 after a four-year career at North Carolina.
“I still think about it,” said Johnson, who was projected as a possible backup for Blake Griffin. “I can’t get it out of my head, just because I was ready. I thought I was ready to go, I was ready for the NBA. And then I got injured and it kind of set me back.”
He didn’t make his NBA debut until Feb. 23 and played a total of three minutes in three regular-season games in addition to a D-League stint.
“I’ve never gotten a serious injury like that before in my life. I’ve never been really hurt,” he said. “I’ve always played, so it really hurt me and I’m taking it out right now.”
Johnson on Sunday had his second straight solid performance for the Clippers’ summer league team, contributing 14 points, six rebounds, one assist, two steals and two blocks to a come-from-behind 86-67 victory over the Utah Jazz. It was a good followup to his 23-point, seven-rebound, three-block effort in the Clippers’ victory over the Lakers on Friday.
“Brice is our team leader,” said Sam Cassell, the Clippers’ summer league coach. “As Brice goes, we go. It’s just that simple.”
If only it were so simple.
Cassell said it can take awhile for Johnson to get going in games, and his coaches have had to push him to stay disciplined. Johnson sat for long stretches of the Clippers’ first summer league game last year in Orlando, Fla., but responded well in the next game; he was benched by North Carolina coach Roy Williams for eight minutes against UCLA in December 2015 for using foul language to vent frustration before he set a career-best of 27 points in the Tar Heels’ victory over the Bruins. On Sunday, after a chat with Cassell in the first half, Johnson scored 10 of his points in the fourth quarter to secure the rout.
“Brice is a guy who allows the game to come to him. But you’ve got to jump-start him,” Cassell said. “Once I jump-start him, he’ll be fine. You motivate him, but not a bunch of screaming and yelling. I just tell him what I expect from him. If I tell him what I expect from him, most of the time he gives me what I want.”
Will that be enough for Johnson to win Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ trust?
“Summer league is very important for him. He’s got to showcase to us as coaches that he deserves to play,” Cassell said. “Right now he’s got to make the effort and give Doc something to think about.”
Johnson said he didn’t set out to be a leader for the Clippers’ summer league team but the role naturally fell to him. He knows he must set a more consistent example.
“I’ve got to do a better job in the games,” he said. “Today I came out a little sluggish and kind of hurt us a little bit there but we had a lot of guys step up, like Jamil Wilson [who had 18 points]. … I’ve just got to do a better job of coming in there and being a little more vocal and harder and have a little more energy.”
His primary goal here was to remind Rivers and the coaches why they drafted him last year. He hopes what he can bring will be worth the wait he and the Clippers had to endure.
“Just go out there and prove what I wasn’t able to prove last year,” he said. “I just have to come out here and prove to the guys in the organization that I can still play. They drafted me for a reason and I’ve got to come out and prove it. Whether I had a bad first half or not, I had to still come out here and play.”
The Clippers will be a vastly different team than they were when they drafted Johnson, especially since the departure of Chris Paul.
“I wish Chris was still here but he’s doing what he’s got to do. Got to let him go. We’ve got to move on,” Johnson said. “We’re expecting big things out of everybody. We’re going to be fine. We’re still going to be a contender in the West.”
Johnson sees himself coming off the bench to provide energy and meaningful minutes.
“Whatever they need me to do,” he said. “I could just get rebounds, or I could come in and get some good looks on the offensive end. I could do all of that. Blocked shots, whatever they need me to do I could come in and do it.”
If he succeeds, it will be easier for him to forget his lost season.