Former Hogs Guard Finding Niche In Atlanta

ORLANDO, Fla. — Not since his sophomore season at Arkansas, five years before he was leading the Atlanta Hawks in scoring, had so much been asked of Joe Johnson.

In his first four NBA seasons, during stops in Boston and Phoenix, Johnson always had ranked lower in the pecking order of expected scorers. After all, Johnson did enter the NBA Draft as a raw, yet immensely talented 19-year-old.

At first, he needed seasoning, instruction and direction. But then, everything started to click.

And after signing to a lucrative deal last season with Atlanta, it quickly became apparent to Johnson that the Hawks' scoring would begin with the 6-foot-7 guard from Little Rock. Johnson needed some time to get used to the Hawks' reliance on him.

"That all started last year, and it took me a while to adapt," Johnson said. "I got put in a new position, and it took me a while to learn my role. This year, though, everyone knows what's going on, what their role is."

No one in the NBA — coaches, teammates, opponents or even Johnson — doubts what Johnson's role is this season.

Atlanta's record is now 5-6 after losing to Orlando at the TD Waterhouse Centre on Saturday night, and Johnson likely is the sole reason for the Hawks' improved start. After dropping an NBA-high 69 games in the 2004-05 season, Johnson arrived last season to help Atlanta to a 26-win campaign.

The Hawks then ripped off four victories in their first five games this season, and Johnson brought a 27.6 scoring average into Saturday night's contest. The timing between Atlanta's improvement and Johnson's arrival was no coincidence, Atlanta point guard Tyronn Lue said.

"He's definitely in the top 5 2-guards in the (NBA)," Lue said. "He's the reason why we're (5-6). With guys hurt, he's been able to carry us.

"He's dangerous all over. He can post up. He has a great floater for a big man. He can shoot the three. He can go left. He can go right. He's a great passer. He really doesn't have a weakness."

That versatility was on display Saturday in Orlando. On three straight possessions, Johnson nailed a 17-foot jump shot, rifled an assist to center Zaza Pachulia and leaped high for an offensive rebound and putback basket.

Johnson said his ever-expanding skills were a result of dedication in past offseasons, this last one especially when he represented the United States at the 2006 World Championships. He averaged 7.3 points in nine games at the World Championships, giving the United States a consistent outside shooting threat. But Johnson said the biggest benefit from the World Championships was the competition in pre-tournament practices, as well as the games.

"The experience this summer with the USA team helped me a lot," Johnson said. "Most importantly, it helped me form the attitude that I've approached this season with."

That approach, that mastering of the daily grind of the NBA, is far easier now for Johnson because of the rough times he endured in his early 20s.

He had played just three semesters at Arkansas before being drafted 10th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 2001 NBA Draft.

"It was tough at first," Johnson said. "All the game we played, the travel. On the court, the hardest part for me was how to deal with the defenses and how to play defense with all the different little techniques."

With time, though, came confidence. And success. Now, Johnson has emerged as a legit All-Star candidate. But he's not content, even if Lue declared he had no weak part to his game.

"I've still got a lot more room for improvement, especially on the defensive end," Johnson said. "And on offense, (I need to work on) getting my teammates more involved, getting guys in their comfortable spots where they can make shots."

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