Making the jump from collegiate sports to professional sports is a dream for thousands of athletes, but as many come to find out, it is not so easy to do. According to the NCAA website, in 2015 there were 18,697 male basketball players and only 46 were drafted to the NBA.
Tyler Johnson has become one of the most intriguing players in the NBA. As an undrafted player, night in and night out Johnson had to prove to the league that he was ready for the next level. After some time in the D-League (NBA Developmental League), he was called up by the Miami Heat and has not looked back since.
Former Bulldog Tyler Johnson Air Force takes on Fresno State during the 2014 Mountain West Conference Men’s Basketball Championship at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV. Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos
Johnson played for Fresno State from 2010-14. He started 87 of 127 games. Johnson per game averaged 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 steals. He finished his time at Fresno State ranked No. 16 on the all-time scoring list with 1,346 points.
“After I graduated, I went to [NBA] summer league,” Johnson says. “I ended up making the summer league team for the Heat. And from there I was invited to go to training camp. I was one of the last two cuts from making the final roster that year.”
Johnson wound up going to play for the Heat’s affiliate team down in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the D-League.
“I ended up playing there for four months, and then I was called up,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really get a chance to play in my first call-up. They sent me back down for two or three games and then I ended up getting called up again, and that’s when I kind of stuck and ended up staying with the team.”
The 24-year-old shooting guard/point guard hybrid described being called up as everything he thought it would be. He said what made it more special was being able to experience the entire process surrounded by loved ones.
“It was a proud moment for not only myself, but for the people who are around me to support me,” he says. “I had a baby when I was in college with my now-fiancee, Ashley, and we were able to go through all those things together along with my mother and my siblings. I was happier because I was able to make them proud.”
It didn’t take long for Johnson to start contributing for the team when he was called up the second time. During that time, the Heat were in the midst of finishing the season strong in preparation for the playoff run ahead of them. The Miami roster boasted some of the most talented players in the league whom Johnson is grateful for having the opportunity to play with and whom he credits for helping in his development.
“I’m blessed,” Johnson says. “A lot of people who come into the league don’t get the opportunity to play with who you would consider a Hall-of-Famer. It was an honor to be able to play with Dwyane. Chris, as we get closer, we’ll see when he comes back. It’s definitely an honor when you get to play next to a Hall-of-Famer.”
This summer, two events happened that will impact not only Johnson, but his family and the city of Miami as well. Johnson’s contract was one of the most talked about deals this offseason. The Brooklyn Nets offered a four-year $50 million contract, which led to the Miami Heat matching the offer and ultimately re-signing him. With the departure of Dwyane Wade from Miami to Chicago and the uncertainty of Chris Bosh’s playing future, Johnson will be looked upon to perform at a high level every night.
Johnson says when he heard of the deal, it was an overwhelming feeling.
The Miami Heat’s Tyler Johnson, right, drives to the basket against the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis (6) and Courtney Lee in the second quarter at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)
“I kind of got sick to my stomach just hearing that number and knowing that I was able to be in a position to take care of my family the way I wanted to,” he says. “I’m blessed to be able to go through it, but I’m glad that whole process is behind me and now I can look forward on just playing basketball.”
Johnson says that now that Wade has moved on from Miami, he is ready for the potential role change for him on the team.
“My role is definitely going to increase,” Johnson says. “I think, for me, to continue doing what I’m doing. When I was healthy, whether it be making shots or running the point and getting everybody organized, as well as being a defender on the perimeter.”
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra likes what he has seen so far out of Johnson and says he knows that there is still much to come from him.
“Tyler, how I describe him is, he’s a winner who finds a way to win,” Spoelstra says. “He’s got an incredible work ethic. I think that’s why the Heat fan base loves Tyler so much. And they should. He’s reflective of the work ethic of this community. He puts in the time. He’s tireless with his work ethic. He’s coachable. He has a great desire to get better, and he’s turned himself into a heck of a pro. But again, with Tyler, I’m not going to put a ceiling on him. Because of his competitiveness, because of his work ethic, his commitment to want to be great, who knows where he can be this year?”
During the season, Johnson followed closely what the Fresno State men’s basketball was doing and tuned in during their run in the Mountain West conference.
“I was excited,” he says. “I wasn’t able to watch but I remember keeping up with the gamecasts when they played San Diego State in the championship for the Mountain West.”
Paul George, currently one of the top players in the NBA, cover athlete of NBA 2K17 and former Fresno State Bulldog (2008-10), is someone Johnson credits for in paving the way for players like himself who may not come from “elite” basketball programs like Kentucky, Duke or Kansas.
“He was definitely somebody I looked up to coming out of school because of the success he was able to have,” Johnson says. “It’s very humbling to have somebody who came before you to show you what route to take.”
Johnson still remains in contact with recent Bulldog basketball graduates Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis and hopes that his story is an example that hard work truly does pay off.
“Just stay with it,” he says. “I was knocked down. I remember when I was first cut from the Heat training camp roster. You just have to stay with it because you never know what kind of opportunity is going to present itself. It’s better to be ready and never get the opportunity, than to get the opportunity and not be ready.”
Former Bulldog Tyler Johnson goes up against a Colorado State defender. (Courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)
Fresno State basketball head coach Rodney Terry coached Johnson for three years and is not surprised that Johnson has made a name for himself at the next level.
“TJ is a wonderful ambassador for our Fresno State basketball program,” Terry says. “His hard work has paid off. He takes great pride in being the best teammate that he can be and carries himself the right way. Tyler was always the first guy in the gym and the last to leave. He led by example. I’m thrilled for Tyler, as well as his family. I am very proud of all that he has accomplished, so far.”
Johnson is grateful for the opportunity Fresno State gave him and is proud to have been part of a program with so much history.
“You think of the tradition that they’ve had there back in the days of ‘Tark’ (Jerry Tarkanian) and Boyd Grant and them, and even Steve Cleveland,” Johnson says. “Everybody who talks about Fresno State basketball talks about those days and all the great players who came before us. It means a lot to be able to wear that jersey, and I’m glad that it’s starting to find its way back on the national map.”