NEW YORK — Tyler Johnson was enjoying being a full-time dad.
He could regularly take his 8-year-old and 4-year-old to school or extracurricular activities “and not feel like I was in a rush to get somewhere else. I could just be calm and be still and be present with them,” he said.
But the 29-year-old guard was also preparing for the right opportunity to get back into the NBA. That arrived last week, when he signed a 10-day hardship contract with the Sixers with reserve guard Shake Milton, backup center Andre Drummond, and starting wing Danny Green in COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Johnson’s first three games have been far from flashy, but have provided Philly with an experienced ballhandler who can seamlessly fill off-the-bench minutes when the Sixers have needed it.
“He knows his spots,” standout forward Tobias Harris said of Johnson. “He knows his positions. Doesn’t do too much. Just plays an extremely solid game. He’s helped us. Even in the Atlanta game … I remember coming to the bench like, ‘Tyler just knows how to play basketball.’ He’s a hooper.”
Johnson is part of the recent influx of new signees — ranging from Sixers rookie Myles Powell, who coach Doc Rivers first met less than two hours before he made his NBA debut, to a 40-year-old Joe Johnson, the seven-time All-Star who played for the Celtics 20 years after the franchise drafted him — as COVID-19′s omicron variant blasts NBA teams.
Tyler Johnson’s career accomplishments fall somewhere in the middle. He has averaged 9.9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game while playing both guard spots over his eight-year career with Miami, Phoenix, and Brooklyn before signing with the Sixers. He is perhaps best known for becoming one of the surprise faces of the 2016 salary-cap spike, when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract after turning himself from undrafted prospect to tough-minded reserve guard who personified “Heat Culture.”
Rivers said Johnson’s grit is an intangible quality “this team needs.” The coach also recognized Johnson’s confidence in his shot when, after missing a three-pointer in his debut against Atlanta, he immediately launched — and drained — a second attempt. Harris added Johnson’s experience shows up in his defensive reactions and natural play-making ability.
“That’s a credit to a lot of teams that he’s been on and systems that he’s played in,” Harris said. “I think he’s really going to help us in this time, and hopefully after that.”
Before getting the call from Philly, Johnson was working out at St. Mary’s College in Northern California, where younger brother Logan plays, and in Miami, where his personal trainer still resides. Because “there’s not a lot of miscellaneous basketball going on right now,” Johnson primarily relied on one-on-one games to stay as sharp and in shape as possible.
Since joining the Sixers on Dec. 22, Johnson credited “a committee” of coaches and teammates that have helped him adapt quickly. He said Rivers’ offensive system is not as complex as others, and that terminology has been the most important element to learn. Against the Wizards, Johnson spent the bulk of one second-half timeout speaking individually with his new head coach.
“He’s been really laid back and he’s allowed room for growth,” Johnson said of Rivers. “… [It’s] still really early, but I’ve been very appreciative of how seamlessly he’s helped me kind of integrate myself into this team.”
Johnson said he felt more confident during Sunday’s win at Washington than in Thursday’s season debut against Atlanta, and anticipated more positive progression during Tuesday’s matchup against the Raptors.
He collected four rebounds in 11 minutes of his season debut against the Hawks. Two days later, he totaled five points on 2-of-4 shooting, two rebounds, two assists, and one blocked shot in 16 minutes of Sunday’s lopsided victory at Washington. Against Toronto, he hit a key third-quarter three-pointer that stretched the Sixers’ lead to five points. He has committed just one turnover over three games. And his presence has been immediately valuable to second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey, who noticed Johnson hollering out defensive rotations during Tuesday’s shootaround.
“He was just screaming,” Maxey said. “And Coach Doc was like, ‘Tyrese, you see Tyler?’ He was just trying to reiterate that with me.”
Johnson’s contract expires following Thursday’s game at Brooklyn, his former team for parts of the past two seasons. It’s possible the Sixers could offer a second 10-day deal, though Rivers said he is hopeful Milton could return from protocols as soon as Thursday.
So Johnson is not looking too far ahead. He reminded that, just a few days ago, he was a full-time dad.
“Obviously, I would like to continue to play basketball, and I like this team,” Johnson said. “… I don’t really want to put expectations and stuff like that on it. I’m gonna try to put myself in a position to continue to play and earn another contract.
“But it’s one of those things where, [if] you hold onto something really tight, sometimes you don’t just allow yourself to enjoy where you’re at.”