It took nearly five years, one massive payday and more than a few stops and starts, but Tyler Johnson finally has assumed a role the Nets envisioned for him back in the desperate depths of their rebuilding: high-energy contributor on a championship contender.
Johnson was inserted into the Nets’ de facto nine-man playoff rotation after Jeff Green was sidelined by a plantar fascia strain following Game 2 of the first round against the Celtics, and Johnson turned in a remember-me spark-plug performance off the bench. The veteran guard’s defensive hustle and outside shooting ability again will be required as the Nets square off the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which began Saturday night at Barclays Center. The series, defined by its matchup of superstar Big 3s, may well be won at the margins.
“He’s going to be big for us this series,” Bruce Brown, who knows a thing or two about unexpected contributions from the Nets’ corps of role players, said of Johnson after Saturday’s morning shootaround. “I told him he’s going to have a big series like two days ago. So look out for him for sure.”
Now look back to July 2016. In general manager Sean Marks’ initial foray into free agency, the Nets lavished Johnson — then a 24-year-old Heat combo guard with a scoring average of 7.4 points and just seven career starts to his name — with a whopping four-year, $50 million offer sheet.
For the Nets, it was a signal of intent as well as a please-take-our-money bid to acquire a player with upside whose age fit their timeline. For Johnson, who had become a restricted free agent after going undrafted in 2014, it was almost beyond comprehension.
“I threw up a couple of times when I heard the number go out there,” Johnson said at the time. “I was in shock.”
Johnson mentally prepared to move to Brooklyn. Then, after a torturous few days, the Heat matched the offer, and Johnson returned to Miami, where his strong play off the bench (he averaged 13.7 points in 2016-17 and 11.7 the following season) was overshadowed by his status, for some observers, as a symbol of the excesses of free agency, rather than as an unheralded prospect made good.
(The Nets, in turn, inked shooting guard Joe Harris and later that season added combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie — a couple of moves that turned out all right.)
The Heat eventually dumped Johnson’s salary to the Suns in February 2019. He was cut after a year of injuries and forgettable play.
The Nets signed Johnson off the scrap heap last June before they entered the Disney bubble — he appeared in all four games of a playoff sweep at the hands of the Raptors — and he re-upped for this season for the minimum of $2.02 million. He averaged 5.4 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 17.5 minutes over 39 games with about an equal dose of “DNP-coach’s decision” outcomes. That was the expectation for the postseason, too, until Green’s injury forced coach Steve Nash to look down the bench.
Johnson, 29, made his biggest dent in Game 4, playing 16 minutes as the second unit helped revive the Nets from a sluggish start and seize a series-altering victory over the Celtics. In Game 5, he notched four rebounds in 11 minutes and knocked down another 3-pointer, making him 3-for-8 from beyond the arc in the first round.
“Tyler came in and played hard, picked up 94 [feet] every chance he got to,” Brown said, “and then knocked down open shots when he had the opportunity to.”
The opportunity to help elevate the next great Nets team has arrived for Johnson at long last.