Nine years ago I sat in the bleachers of a high school gym in Santa Monica to watch one of my clients work out for a couple of NBA teams. It was shortly before the summer draft, and my prospect, a 19-year-old shooting guard from the University of Arkansas, had the ball deep in the corner with his back to the hoop. With two defenders all over him, Joe Johnson, all 6'8" and 225-pounds of him, leaped, spun and chucked in a line drive. Three seconds later he stole the ball and was double-teamed in the low post with no escape route humanly possible. So Joe did something inhuman -- making a 180-degree turn and lofting a perfect lob pass to a teammate beneath the rim.
On his way out of the gym, Michael Jordan -- on hand to scout him for the Washington Wizards - told me, "Mark my word: Joe could turn out to be the best player in the 2001 draft."
Well, the time has come to mark His Airness' words. With the possible exception of Pau Gasol, whom the Atlanta Hawks took with the No. 3 pick before trading his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies, Joe has fulfilled Jordan's prophecy. After the Boston Celtics drafted him tenth overall (the Wizards chose Kwame Brown with the top selection), Joe was traded to the Phoenix Suns. In 2005, Joe, a restricted free agent, signed a five-year offer sheet from Atlanta. (The sign-and-trade deal brought Phoenix guard Boris Diaw and two lottery-protected future first-round picks). This season he averaged 21.3 points a game and was named to his fourth straight All-Star team. Today, the newly-minted free agent announced his intention to re-sign with the Hawks for six more years.
When Joe came to Atlanta, the Hawks were NBA doormats, and not especially welcoming ones at that. Since his arrival, their record has improved every season. They've made the playoffs three years running. During the 2009-'10 campaign, Joe helped the Hawks to their best record (53-29) in 13 years. Only five teams had more wins.
Over his five years in Atlanta, Joe has established himself as one of the most formidable forces in pro ball. As a dynamic Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside duo, he and his young teammate Al Horford rank statistically just behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Hawks also have Josh Smith, who, at 24, is one of the league's emerging talents. There's a lot to like in Atlanta these days.
Before becoming a free agent, Joe focused on the Hawks, the Bulls and the Knicks. Chicago offered him a chance to play with the brilliant point guard Derrick Rose and a tough young center, Joakim Noah. A further incentive: the roster included Joe's great friend Jannero Pargo, one of his college teammates. New York has Mike D'Antoni, the coach who nurtured Joe in Phoenix. Joe loved playing for D'Antoni and was excited by the possibility of joining him in New York. It seemed like a perfect match: a tenacious player who never naps on court in the city that never sleeps.
When the free-agency period kicked in, Joe made a point of talking to the Hawks first. Their owners and new coach, Larry Drew, impressed Joe with their commitment to making the team championship-caliber. In turn, Joe felt equally committed to the Hawks, his teammates and the city of Atlanta.
With all his success, Joe remains as grounded as he was a decade ago at our first meeting in Little Rock. His priorities are his family, his friends and his game. Joe could have forced a sign-and-trade deal for five years with another team, but he decided that winning in Atlanta would be more meaningful. When the Hawks offered the maximum -- six years -- he happily reciprocated.
For his next act, Joe plans to actively recruit other top free agents to Atlanta, a place not unlike his hometown, where he feels comfortable and appreciated.
LeBron, you've already met with the front offices of six teams. How about considering the Hawks?
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