Denzel Johnson is a 190cm guard from Fresno, California playing his second professional season and first with TVI Basketball SWAP Ballers Ibbenbueren (Germany-Regionalliga). Last season as a rookie he played with Nature Nardo (Italy-Serie C Silver). He played at Santa Clara from 2011-2015 playing a total of 109 games and as a senior played 33 games averaging 8.6ppg, 2.9rpg, 1.8apg, 1.2spg, FGP: 40.3%, 3PT: 37.0%, FT: 74.5%. He spoke to German Hoops about basketball.
Denzel, thanks for talking to German Hoops. Welcome to Germany. How good is basketball life for you at the moment? When you came to the losing team Ibbenbueren, did you ever think that te club could have such a big turnaround?
First I want to thank Eurobasket for taking the time to speak with me. My time here in Germany has been nothing short of amazing! When I got here my team was struggling and was towards the bottom of the league. It was made very clear that they wanted to change that by signing me and that confidence they showed in me was everything I needed to come here and make a difference. I was not surprised at all by our success because I came ready to make an immediate difference.
One could say that you have been the difference going from 2-7 to 12-2. Does the club and fans feel like you have been the savior? I am quite sure you will say that it has been a team effort since you arrived.
My arrival has seemed to allow everyone on the team to elevate their game to another level. But yes the fans here have been very vocal about their infatuation with me. Also the other coaches in the league always seemed to express their recognition of the difference I have made here, which surprised me because that was usually after we just kicked their butts.
Was it making adjustments on the defensive end one of the key reasons why the team has improved so much? In the first 9 games Ibbenbueren gave up 80 points or more 8 times while since you arrived have allowed only 80 points or more 5 times in 14 games.
I watched a few of the games of our team before I arrived and it is safe to say our defensive intensity has elevated since I have been here. Every team I’ve been on my whole career I always got the assignment of guarding the other team’s best player. I think my ability to make it tough on their best scorer causes major problems on the other team’s rhythm.
After playing with Nature Nardo (Italy-Serie C Silver), how do you compare the skill level between that league and the Regionaliga?
Honestly the talent level between Regionaliga and Italy Serie C is very close. I think here in Germany there is a bit more of an American influence. My teammates in Italy only knew of the big stars in the NBA. My teammates here know about all players in the NBA from the stars to the role players. I say that to say it isn’t uncommon to see even the German players modeling their games after NBA players which is widely recognized as the best league in the world. That wasn’t the case so much in Italy.
The team has a lot of experience which is strengthened by German veteran Benjamin Fumey. What has your experience been like being teammates with him. How enjoyable has it been having another scorer to help take some of the load of your shoulders?
Benny is the heart and soul of this team. When he talks, we listen because we all recognize he knows what he is talking about. I lead the team in points, but I wouldn’t argue with someone who thinks he is the most important player on our team. We had to play about 5 games without him due to injury and it really made me appreciate how much his presence effects the game. Without him, teams can really focus in on me. When he’s out there, the game becomes wide open.
How long did it take for you to find out that you both went to school in California? You played at Santa Clara and he was at Valparaiso. What NCAA stories did you tell each other?
I actually didn’t know he went to school in the states for almost two months of being here. It was fun being able to talk about some of the same arenas we have played in.
How quickly did you notice that you were a role model for the other German players on the team. What has been the coolest thing about being the lone American on a team with mostly Germans?
It actually didn´t take long for me to realize that some of the guys looked up to me. I have a series of drills I do before and after practice to get and keep myself ready to play. After about a week I started to notice some of the guys adopting my habits. It was a good feeling to know that I played a part in them trying to raise their game and that only helps us become a better team.
Let´s talk about your game. How refreshing has it been being the main go to guy and playing many minutes? At Santa Clara your minutes fluctuated and you did average 31 minutes as a senior, but you weren´t scoring at the rate you are now.
It has been amazing to be able to play freely and with so much confidence. It just goes to show that your situation and circumstances play a huge part in your success. I have no regrets about college, but I wasn’t able to put my full potential on display. I was in a system that was slow-paced and a lot of set plays. This only really allowed two or three guys to get a rhythm and with spending so much energy guarding the other team’s best player, its very easy to look up and see that 7 or 8 minutes have gone by and you only shot it one time. I would always have a big impact on the game but it wouldn’t always show on the stat sheet. I’m in a different situation here.
How has your role changed from Santa Clara to Ibbenbueren. It seems like you’re a pure scoring point guard now in Germany and not as much of the playmaker.
At Santa Clara we had a lot of talented guards on the team. So with me being the best defender on the team I wasn’t called upon to score as much as I do here. Even though I was just as capable of doing that at Santa Clara, I only got to really show it every few games. On this team, it’s something that I need to do every game. Which I have shown I’m capable of doing. We also have another guard on the team that really likes to move the ball so when it gets to me I have more of an opportunity to be aggressive because everyone has already got a touch. As opposed to me just dribbling the ball down the court and shooting it.
You’re a point guard that can do a majority of things, but when one sees you on the floor, to what NBA player would you best compare your game to?
If I were to compare my game to an NBA player it would probably be Damian Lillard because I always play under control. Also because my body language doesn’t change. If you were to walk into the game in the middle of the 3rd quarter you wouldn’t be able to tell if I was having a terrible game or the game of my life.
You’re a 190cm guard that can play the 1-3 positions. What are some other strengths in your game besides just being a good scorer?
With my size something that might go unnoticed is my ability to post up down low against other guards who are my size or smaller. And on offense I can play 1-3 but defensively I can guard 1-4 on a lot of teams which is something I think adds to my value.
You’re a guy that can fill up the stat sheet with ease, but what do you feel is a hidden strength in your game that doesn´t always get noticed right away?
Something that I think can go unnoticed about my game that doesn’t come up on the stat sheet is my basketball IQ and my ability to make things happen vocally. Even if you watch my game on film you won’t be able to tell how much I’m talking out on the floor especially defensively getting guys in the right spots. It pays dividends to the success of the team. That’s one of the things the opposing coaches often mention to me after the game that he was impressed about.
Last season you played your rookie season and first in Europe with Nature Nardo (Italy-Serie C Silver). You could have been a rookie in 2015-2016. Did you play semi-pro in the States or did you sit out weighing your options or do something else?
During 2015-2016 I didn´t play on any team I was in the states just training and getting my body ready.
What was your wake up call to being a rookie with Nature Nardo (Italy-Serie C Silver) last season where you knew that you were very far away from home in Fresno, California?
My first time realizing how far away I was from home came after 3 or 4 days went by and I hadn’t talked to any family or friends because we just kept playing phone tag because of the time difference. They would call when I was asleep. I would wake up and call back and then they were asleep. When you have to basically make appointments to talk to family you know you aren’t close to home.
How big is your chip on your shoulder as a professional basketball player? You were a solid role player as a senior at Santa Clara and your uncle is ex NBA star Gary Payton, but your playing in the German Regionaliga. Does that chip get heaver each day?
The chip on my shoulder is HUGE. I was blessed to witness the highest level of basketball very up close and personal at a very young age. When you love the game as much as I do and you get to see that, of course you’re going to grow up thinking I have to play in the NBA. As you get older you realize how difficult that is, but I still want to get to the highest level I can possible. I believe that my first 2 professional seasons have proven that I’m capable of playing at higher level leagues in Europe and I think now is the time for me to get the opportunity to do that.
What kind of relationship have you had to your uncle Gary Payton? How have you benefited positively from his game and from his character?
My relationship with my Uncle is very close. I can call him and ask him about anything. Just being able to basically have front row seats to watch his career was enough to make me want to do great things. I was there when they played against Jordan and the Bulls in the finals. I was there when he went to the finals with the Lakers in ‘04. These things had a huge impact on my love for the game. Still to this day when he comes to see me play I know he doesn’t care if I score 100 points, if I don’t shut someone down, I’m going to get an ear full after the game. And I appreciate him pushing me to be great!
You played at Santa Clara from 2011-2015. How was that whole experience for you? It seemed like you had more of a role on the team in your freshman and senior years.
My experience as a whole at Santa Clara was great. The education is top notch, and I met some of my closest friends while I was there. It was very tough for me during my Sophomore and Junior year not getting the minutes that I felt I deserved, but instead of transferring I looked at it as a challenge that I would grow from and eventually look back and be proud of myself for fighting until the end and that’s exactly what happen.
The school didn´t have much success when you were there. What positives did you take from your 4 year career at Santa Clara?
It was tough to lose a lot because I came from a winning culture in High School. But it helped me recognize what are the things that contribute to a struggling program and its helped me in my professional career. I won a championship in my rookie year in Italy and was a key part in the team getting to move up to Serie B and I’m proud of that. It’s part of the reason I was able to change the culture here in Ibbenbüren from a losing one to a winning one. In two professional seasons I have only lost 7 games. That is not a coincidence and I hope the teams in the higher leagues in Europe are noticing what I can bring to their teams.
As a freshman you had USF´s number scoring 26 and 20 points. You had some huge games as a freshman. Where did these two rank in your career?
Those two games against USF are towards the top of my most memorable games in college because I was finally able to breathe and not question myself. It was just reassurance that I could play at that level. Outside of those two games I will also never forget beating Saint Mary’s on senior night, my last time playing in the Leavey Center.
As a freshman you scored 11 points in a 73-62 loss against 2017 NCAA finalist Gonzaga. On the court was Euroleague player Kevin Pangos, ex NBA player Elias Harris ex NBA player Robert Sacre and current NBA player David Stockton. Do you ever stress your mind thinking where you compare to guys like that in skill? Is there really so much difference?
I was able to play against a lot of NBA players during my time at Santa Clara such as Matthew Delavedova (Milwakee Bucks) Josh Richardson (Miami Heat) Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic). Kelly Olynyk (Miami Heat) Tony Snell (Milwakee Bucks) and a few others including the ones you just named. Not one time did I feel like I didn’t have a chance. If you asked Kevin Pangos and David Stockton about me they’d tell you we had some epic battles. It was just confirmation that I can play this game at a high level.
Some big time players from Santa Clara have played in Germany with John Bryant, Brian Jones and Kyle Bailey. Did you ever meet any of these guys when you were at school and do you remember ever hearing stories about them in school?
I had the pleasure of meeting all 3 of those Gentlemen. John Bryant would come and train with our big men during the off-season to stay in shape and help their games. Kyle Bailey actually became an assistant coach for our team so I got to learn a lot from him. He was retired but when he played with us there were times where he was hands down the best player on the court so I can only imagine what he was capable of in his prime.
You had many big games, but where does the 76-67 win against Washington State rank where you scored 12 points in the win.
The win over Washington State was huge for us because with them being in the Pac-12 it was important for us to show that there is a lot of talent in the WCC and thats what we did that night.
Do you ever look back at your last game in the NCAA against BYU losing 78-76. How tough was it for you going out like that?
My last game against BYU in the conference tournament was an extremely tough loss to swallow. They had one of the nation’s best scorers in Tyler Haws and they had been to the NCAA tournament twice during my 4 years and we had them on the ropes. It took a tough shot at the last second to beat us and that hurt.
You played two seasons with Kevin Foster. He was a big time player at Santa Clara, but his professional career fizzled. Did it surprise you that a guy like that isn´t playing anymore?
I have been playing basketball since I was 3 years old. I don’t even have to hesitate when I say Kevin Foster is the most talented teammate I have ever had. So yes, it is mind boggling to me that he isn´t playing anymore. It just goes to show that you have to realize that it’s just not about basketball when you move and live in a completely part of the world.
How did head coach Kevin Keating groom and prepare you best for a professional basketball career?
The biggest thing that I took from my time with Coach Keating is that you can always control your attitude and effort because my four years definitely didn’t go as planned.
Who won a one on one in practice you or Brandon Clark?
It’s funny that you ask that because Brandon was the person I always got extra work in with after practice. We both would pick ourselves because we are very competitive. The thing is I would be the only one telling the truth. However, I’m proud of him because he is also having a good career in Europe and I expect to see him playing in Top leagues very soon.
Who was the toughest player that you battled in the NCAA that is in the NBA right now
The player that really stood out to me in college was Kelly Olynyk. He didn´t play my position so I never guarded him but it was obvious where he was headed. When it comes to my position, I actually would say it’s my cousin Gary Payton II. He is one of the most athletic guards in the league. He’s very early in his career so it hasn’t been displayed much, but it is coming soon and when it happens he is going to take the league by storm.
If you had to construct your own NBA Rushmore which 4 heads would you chose?
My NBA Mt. Rushmore has Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lebron James
Lebron James failed to win his fourth NBA title and is still three away from Michael Jordan. Where does Lebron stand right now in your opinion in the never ending debate of who is the best of all-time?
I don´t think he’ll ever pass MJ because for me to say anyone is better than him they will have to be head and shoulders above him. Even if its close, I give the edge to MJ because he’s the one everyone is chasing. But I think when it´s all said and done, any intelligent Basketball fan will acknowledge that Lebron is the second best player we have ever seen.
There has been criticism of Russell Westbrook to be focusing more on rebounding to help inflate his stats and possibilities of getting triple doubles instead of focusing on his defensive assignments. Do you feel that this is a fair assessment to the player Russell Westbrook?
I think that is very unfair. In my opinion there is no way you can be too selfish rebounding. If I ´m a coach, I want all 5 of my guys going after rebounds like their lives depend on it.
How do you summarize the 2017 NBA Draft. What sleepers do you see playing a role in the NBA?
I think the 2017 draft had a lot of talent. The person I’m interested in seeing develop the most is Jayson Taytum.
Where will the journey of the Houston Rockets go this season with Chris Paul and James Harden in the back court. Do they have enough to make a serious run at the title or is something missing?
I think the Rockets have what it takes to win a title already. That doesn’t mean it will happen because there are a few teams that have what it takes. Thats the beauty of the NBA.
How do you rate the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade? Who got the better deal and which team will profit better in the long run?
Boston definitely won that trade in my opinion. You can tell because Cleveland already got rid of the players they got from Boston. Boston is younger with more talent now.
What was your take on the Cavs wheeling and dealing sending away Thomas, Wade and Rose? How quickly will they be successful?
I think the Cavs will have a hard time getting back to the finals but we will see because they still have Lebron James
Where will the journey of the Oklahoma Thunder go this season with Westbrook, George and Anthony? Can they make a serious run in the west?
I think either Paul George or Carmelo will leave after this season. I don’t see the thunder getting past the 2nd round in the tough western conference
What was the last movie that you saw?
The last movie I saw was the Tupac movie “All Eyez on Me”
Thanks Denzel for the chat.