ORLANDO – The question a reporter posed to coach Ryan Saunders after the victory in Miami on Wednesday had to do with the fight the Timberwolves showed to erase a double-digit deficit.
Unprompted, Saunders made the answer about one player in particular — James Johnson.
“He’s changing our team each day right now, and he’s just given us a confidence,” Saunders said. “He’s giving the youngest team in the league, I guess you could say a swag, a way about them.”
This four-game trip was a busy one for the 33-year-old. He organized team activities in Miami, including a beach day before the Wolves played the Heat. It was a part of the team bonding that’s necessary when a new group is trying to get to know each other.
He spent some time with his family, down here because Johnson played the previous three seasons with Miami. And he ordered ribs for everyone on the flight home from Earl’s Kitchen and Bar in Orlando after the loss to the Magic on Friday.
“They’re the kind that just falls off the bone,” Johnson said.
All the while, he was helping this Wolves team find its identity.
“I see they’re hungry,” Johnson said. “I see their work ethic. I can work with all that. Their heart’s always in the right place when they’re trying to make plays, and if we can keep building on that, I think we have something here that’s going to be real special.”
Teammates seem to be drawn to his leadership. All have spoken highly of what Johnson’s efforts to unify the team have meant to them — even in extreme terms.
“If James told me to jump off a cliff I would do it yesterday,” Josh Okogie said. “He’s been great for us, and we’ve been following his lead.”
Added D’Angelo Russell: “He’s amazing. I saw a quote the other day saying how he’s giving a lot of young guys some swag. It’s so true. … You’ve got a lot of people out here on our team trying to play for their stripes and every night is an opportunity to win somebody over and he’s giving guys the confidence to do that.”
The Wolves are the NBA’s youngest team, and that’s understandable given how President Gersson Rosas wants to remake this roster to align with when Karl-Anthony Towns reaches the peak of his career.
But there still is room for a veteran voice on a team like this. Someone whose experience carries cache. Someone who can offer a different perspective than a coach, and someone who can back up his words with his play.
“You have to be around him to know how big he is off the court and on the court,” Juancho Hernangomez said. “He knows everything. He been through everything, the bad things, the good things, on bad teams, on good teams. … He’s our leader.”
Johnson, who is under contract for next season as well, has assumed this role naturally while producing well in his short time in Minnesota — 12.1 points per game in eight games, up from 5.7 with the Heat.
“We’re not using that ‘I’m young’ excuse,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to use the ‘I’m going to get better’ excuse. …
“It’s more than just practicing together at this point. It’s the bonding, figuring out what you got, being able to trust your guys that are out there. Making a mistake, checking that box and trying to make sure you don’t make it again.”
That’s easier said than done, and the Wolves made their share of mistakes Friday. Johnson wasn’t all that discouraged by it.
“We know we have work to do, but as long as we keep that attitude I think we’ll figure out a lot of things quick,” he said.
Johnson is likely to be one of the main people responsible when or if that happens.
“He’s seen a lot of different ways of doing things,” Saunders said. “He’s seen a lot of experiences in the NBA, and he has a really interesting viewpoint on a lot of things.”