East Lansing — On one side of the gym at Breslin Center, Pistons rookie Sekou Doumbouya was shooting free throws; on the other, Joe Johnson was getting treatment — both finishing their first day of training camp.
It was an interesting juxtaposition: an 18-year-old rookie and an 18-year veteran, both looking to make good first impressions for coach Dwane Casey. Doumbouya, the first-round pick, will have his time; Johnson is looking to extend his.
It’s a familiar routing for Johnson, who sat out last season but didn’t forget how to ride the proverbial bike. He’s in a competition for the final roster spot; however, if he makes the roster, he likely would have a bigger role than just the typical 15th man.
One of the biggest hurdles could be getting back to NBA shape, a bit different than what he had to do last summer in the Big3, which was half-court, 3-on-3 basketball. Johnson insists that he’s ready for the increase, though. That showed in the first day of camp.
Moreover, he still has the love for the game.
“It’s just the grind. It’s the toughest part of the season, but if you put in the work now, the game won’t be so hard,” Johnson said. “I know I do (have it in me). That’s not a question for me. I train and work daily. Regardless of whether I was going to be playing or not; I was still going to be working. I’ll always be in shape.”
When Johnson last played in 2018 with the Jazz and Rockets, he was just 36 and didn’t have a swan song or farewell tour for his final game. In fact, he said he didn’t plan on retiring; rather, he just wanted to fade off into the sunset.
“Mentally I wasn’t retired but I wasn’t like, ‘I have to get back in.’ Can you just go and not retire — just sail off in the wind?” Johnson said. “I never had retirement on my mind. I wasn’t just itching to get back. Everything has happened like it was supposed to. Playing in the Big3 was fun and I enjoyed it.
“I didn’t get on that stage to get back to this stage. I did that for the love of the game; I had fun and did it for some of my brothers. It kind of led to this. I want to take advantage of that and see what comes out of it.”
Johnson could be penciled in as a backup small forward or potentially play power forward in some smaller lineups. He has that versatility but the true test will be how many minutes he might be able to play. Casey said last week that they obviously wouldn’t be looking to Johnson to play starters’ minutes, but what’s the sweet spot in between a starter and reserve?
Is it 10-15 minutes? It might depend on the lineups and the opponent and situation.
“I definitely have to be in shape. Whether I go two games and don’t play, I still have to take care of myself. You might not play the next game, so…” he said. “I’m willing to do whatever Casey needs me to do. I’m going to put in the work and do my part.”
Time to simmer
Reggie Jackson found a new nickname for Johnson: “Crock Pot.” It’s an homage to how Johnson can get heated up, but it’s in a slower motion than some of the younger guys.
It’ll take a long time for that to overtake “Iso Joe” — a hat-tip to Johnson’s isolation game — as the primary moniker but Jackson was proud of the new name.
Johnson didn’t buy into the hype.
“I think it’s interesting. I don’t gripe or groan about the nicknames,” Johnson said. “I let you guys deal with it and I just play.”
Blake out ill
Blake Griffin missed the first session of the two-a-day workouts on Tuesday because of an illness. There’s no concern that it will be a long-term absence.