ATLANTA — Ivan Johnson knows the Hawks are probably his last chance to make a good impression on the NBA.
Not many 27-year old rookies get a second chance.
So far, so good.
After the 6-foot-8, 255-pound banger knocked around the minor leagues trying to overcome a reputation as a hothead, Hawks forward Josh Smith says Atlanta has found a “diamond in the rough”
Johnson said his past makes him different than a college player.
“Some of these players coming straight out of college haven’t been through a lot of stuff,” Johnson said. “I’ve been through a lot. I know what hard work means.”
Johnson spent last season with Erie of the NBA D-League after playing professionally in China, South Korea and Puerto Rico.
He was released from his scholarship at Oregon in 2006 after being benched for what was called improper displays of attitude. He finished at Cal State San Bernardino in 2007.
Then anger-related incidents earned him a ban from the Korean Basketball League. He said it was the most difficult place for him to play.
Johnson has become a key backup and favorite with fans who Monday night chanted “I-van Johnson! I-van Johnson!” during the Hawks loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Asked how he’s won over the fans, the normally stern-faced Johnson allowed a small smile and said “I’m a beast. I keep working hard. I’ve got a lot of heart.”
Those qualities also have won over Hawks coach Larry Drew, who was as surprised as anyone to see Johnson make the team in camp.
The Hawks waived their only draft pick, center Keith Benson, to keep Johnson.
He proved to be a key member of the Hawks’ rotation after All-Star center Al Horford was lost for at least three months with a torn pectoral muscle and backup Jason Collins sprained his left elbow last week.
Collins is expected to miss at least two weeks, leaving Johnson as the slightly undersized backup to Zaza Pachulia at center.
The burly Johnson, equipped with ample bulk and more than ample energy, has been productive with his minutes.
“He’s responded very well,” Drew said. “I’m surprised. He carries himself as a veteran. He doesn’t have any fear about going against guys who are bigger and faster.”
Johnson has helped keep the Hawks near the top of the Southeast Division, despite a three-game losing streak.
“It’s big for us to be able to find a diamond in the rough,” Smith said. “He came in and found his niche and found it early and the way he has been playing has just surprised a lot of people around the league.”