NBA players often speak glowingly of their “veterans,” the older players that helped them thrive in the league when they were rookies. Kevin Garnett shouts out Sam Mitchell — sorry, that’s “THE GREAT SAM MITCHELL” — for teaching him the NBA ropes. Draymond Green credits Jarrett Jack as “my vet.” It makes an NBA career not just a collection of numbers and jerseys but a historical lineage, with tools and tricks and advice passed down from one generation to the next.
For 20-year-old Phoenix Suns rookie Joe Johnson, his mentor was four-time All-Star Penny Hardaway. For 20-year-old rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Joe Johnson hopes it’s seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson.
“Those guys (Hardaway, Shawn Marion, and Stephon Marbury) helped me instead of just letting me find my own way,” Johnson told The Brooklyn Game. “Penny kind of took me under his wing. He was showing me little things I can do to improve and get better to last in this league. So I’m just trying to pass that on down to somebody else.”
There are style parallels between Johnson and Hardaway. Hardaway was a smooth basketball potpourri, who broke defenders down not with brute force or extraterrestrial athleticism or one killer right-to-left crossover but by a thousand cuts. Like Johnson, Hardaway struggled to bring a team deep into the playoffs as the lead conductor, but thrived as a complementary piece.
Hollis-Jefferson, with his nonstop frenetic energy and shaky outside shot, isn’t the all-around player Hardaway was or Johnson is. But Johnson hopes he can make it there.
“Rondae kind of reminds me of myself, even though we’ve got two totally different games,” Johnson said. “Coming in at 20, 21, you don’t really know what to expect until you get out there. And then playing with veteran guys as a rookie, you really don’t have a role, so to speak. So when your opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready.”
Wednesday’s shootaround featured one example. Following the team’s walkthrough, Johnson held an extended session with Hollis-Jefferson just outside one of Barclays Center’s three-point lines. His message? Don’t give coach Lionel Hollins any reasons to keep you out.
“I never wanted Coach to have an excuse not to play me,” Johnson said. “I worked on all phases of the game, whether it was free throws for late-game situations, whether it was being a spot-up shooter, whether it was being pretty good in pick-and-rolls, making plays for other guys, whether it was working on my post game. So you just want to have a variety, and I was just telling him that and just something he should think about, something he should work on.”
“Not just be like, ‘Oh, Rondae, go in and get a stop in a late-game situation,’ or ‘Rondae, just sit in the corner and shoot,’” Hollis-Jefferson said. “You want to be able to shoot. You want to be able to defend. You want to be able to be good in pick-and-roll situations. You want to be able to post up. So he was pretty much telling me to be able to work out on every situation and be good in every aspect so there’s no reason for Coach to have to take you out.”
Hollis-Jefferson has sought out advice from Johnson and Jarrett Jack throughout training camp and preseason, and is trying to take their words to heart.
“He’s just (been) building up to it,” Hollis-Jefferson told The Brooklyn Game. “Before, it might’ve been as far as holding your follow-through. Simple things like that. I’ve just kept building, kept talking to them, kept asking them questions. ‘Hey, how do you do that? How do you move? How do you get into the creases and create?’ Stuff like that. He’s just telling me. He’s been that role model that all younger guys need.”
Johnson and Hardaway’s careers diverge on one major point: longevity. Multiple knee surgeries cut short Hardaway’s All-Star-caliber years, and he only played in 57 NBA games after his 33rd birthday. Johnson, who turned 34 over the summer, led the Nets in minutes played (3,040) and miles ran (204) last season.
Luck plays a part in avoiding the injury bug, but Johnson’s conditioning has remained in peak form. He credits his ritualistic hot yoga. It’s the only way he can still play, he says, with over 40,000 minutes played on his NBA odometer.
Johnson took a rest day Tuesday — not unusual, as Johnson took a rest day during last year’s preseason as well — but the extra time off helps him when he’s on. “Whenever’s necessary, or whenever I feel the need, I’m going to voice how I feel, physically, mentally, and just try to do the right thing to help this team win games,” Johnson said, later adding that “maybe I can’t go 3, 4 hard days of practice and then play, but I feel like I still have a great impact on this game.”
But the coded part of a mentorship role and added rest days — that your NBA run is near the finish line — isn’t something that bothers Johnson.
“We all have our times, man,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a great career. Obviously I’m more at the end than anything. I understand that. It’s (nothing) that’s hard for me to overcome. So this is part of my job, to help these guys.”
As he wrapped up Tuesday’s mentoring session, Johnson casually stepped into a three-pointer and knocked it down, a succinct end to the lesson. Hollis-Jefferson, battling a sprained right ankle, followed up with his own three-pointer — an airball. Hollis-Jefferson got the ball back and shot another three-pointer. He swished the second one.