With Kevin Durant and James Harden — even Kyrie Irving, if he ever rejoins the team — Brooklyn has an abundance of skill. What the Nets were looking for this offseason was toughness.

James Johnson has an abundance of that.


Johnson is a 6-foot-7, 240-pound black belt from a family of black belts. He’s fought — and won — in a variety of martial arts disciplines, including MMA, so fighting for stray rebounds isn’t daunting.

“Adding James Johnson into the fold here, a guy like that who has a toughness about him, defensive-minded presence,” Nets GM Sean Marks said. “We’re going to be expecting him to crash those boards and hit.”

Johnson, 34, who is part black and part Samoan, is a third-degree black belt in karate. His style is Kenpo (or Kempo), a Japanese art that translates to Fist Method, or sometimes The Law of The Fist.

“I fought my whole life. My whole family fights,” Johnson said. “We’re all black belts.”

Both of Johnson’s parents have black belts. So do his siblings — all eight of them. His father, Willie, an ex-Marine who holds an eighth-degree black belt (there are 10 degrees), won five world karate championships and 10 national karate titles, and also was a seven-time world kickboxing champion.

His mom, Vi, is going for her fourth-degree black belt in December, and has five national titles in karate. All of Johnson’s siblings have won or finished second for a national karate title. To this day, the family still runs J&P’S TKKA (Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing and Karate Association) in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“With him — training all my children — they had the responsibility of doing right, an understanding, a discipline to have the empathy for people who needed it,” Willie told The Post. “I started all my kids off early in martial arts. I started teaching them to protect themselves, not to be fighters. Then we started going to tournaments.”

James Johnson won his first karate world title before the age of 10, and continued competing in martial arts until he went to college.
Photo courtesy of James Johnson

Willie said James won his first world title in the Point Karate League when he was just 9 years old, fighting for Team X-Cell and travel Team McCaskell.

Johnson spent his middle school years kickboxing in different age and weight classifications. But by the time he got into MMA in high school, the entire concept of age limits had gone by the wayside. Johnson found himself fighting men almost a decade his senior.

“I was 15, fighting [opponent who were] 24, 25,” Johnson recalled to The Post. “My oldest was probably 28. At that time, I was 18. The fighting game don’t got no age, man. You’ve got a weight class, and if you’re good enough, then you go in.”

Johnson was good enough right from the start. In his first MMA bout — at the tender age of 18 — he went right after his opponent, winning in just 97 seconds. He eventually earned the nickname Little Ali.

“When I was coming up in MMA…it was ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and then UFC was OK, it wasn’t big or anything like that,” Johnson said. “It didn’t start shooting off until about 2008, ’09, maybe ’10. But when I came out of high school in ’07, there were little venues, not a lot of people there. Little venues — Vegas, Utah, out there — just doing events pretty much.”

In six-plus years of fighting, Johnson piled up a 21-0 mark in his kickboxing bouts and went a perfect 7-0 in MMA matches, having fought in Utah, Colorado and Las Vegas.

Despite fighting against the likes of Raymond Daniels and with friend Anthony Adams – both of whom now compete in the Bellator MMA promotion — he had no choice but to retire from fighting when he went to play basketball at Wake Forest in 2007 (“I had to. I had to go on scholarship; I wasn’t paying for myself to be there.”).

James Johnson (23) of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons boxes out David McClure (14) of the Duke Blue Devils at the LJVM Coliseum on February 17, 2008 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In two seasons at Wake Forest, Johnson averaged 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds a game before being drafted 16th overall by the Bulls in 2009.
Getty Images

The decision led to an NBA career that is about to enter its 13th season, with his ninth different team. And though his stats — 7.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game — don’t jump off the boxscore, they reflect a multi-faceted reliability that teams trying to win, such as Miami, Dallas and now Brooklyn, value. In August, Johnson inked a one-year contract with the Nets.

“He’s been great,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He’s still trying to get his legs underneath him, but he’s physical, he can defend multiple positions.

James Johnson #16 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on October 11, 2021
Johnson has not been a prolific scorer in his previous 12 NBA seasons, but he elicited praise from Nets coach Steve Nash for his ball-moving and versatile defense.
NBAE via Getty Images

“He’s very decisive offensively, which for a guy that’s not known as a great shooter can make him a valuable offensive player. He creates second actions and opportunities and plays with pace. Both ends of the floor I can see him filling a role for us and being a nice piece of our team.”

He can be several pieces. Rebounder. Defender. And if need be, enforcer.

“He’s overall a well-rounded player: great knowledge defensively, can handle a little bit, can pass a little bit, fills those gaps,” Blake Griffin said. “Just a good locker room presence, good guy to have on the team.”

Johnson can guard anywhere from center to small forward (cough, Giannis Antetokounmpo, cough), providing the positional versatility the Nets crave for their switch-happy defensive scheme. And the physicality they’ll need to back up their stars.

“I was fortunate to be coached by some very good coaches, especially on the defensive end. So as far as schemes and things we put in — traps, low man — I’m 13 years in; there’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” Johnson said. “I know my offensive load is down because of obviously who we have, but that’s OK. I’m ready to accept my role and try to try to be the star of that.”

About his first love, Johnson said he would like to return to MMA after he’s done in the NBA.

“It’s always good to get back in the summertime and get to work, do a little bit so you don’t lose it,” Johnson said. “I still get in my boxing, get in some martial arts. But other than that, it’s hard to train knowing you’re not going to fight.

“I feel like I could [still fight]. Mentally, I definitely feel like I could still get busy. But you never know until you really start training again. Who knows what’ll happen?”

One thing Johnson knows will happen is he will pass along the martial arts discipline to his three sons, the way his parents passed it along to him. His eldest, Naymin, is taking classes now; Harlem and Golden will be soon.

“That’s one of the things I feel is mandatory for a kid growing up,” Johnson said. “Anything else, I’ve got your back, any other sport you want to do. But martial arts, you have to do that.”

(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)




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