Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, July 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Elijah Johnson’s jersey says "Clippers," but it’s probably more accurate to say that over the next 10 days the Cheyenne High grad is playing for himself.
Don’t think of it as a selfish decision, or even putting self before team. In Los Angeles’ 90-83 NBA Summer League victory against the Atlanta Hawks at Cox Pavilion on Friday, Johnson cheered just as much as any other teammate while not playing. And when he was in the game — Johnson logged 16 minutes at shooting guard — the undrafted free agent out of Kansas finished with the second-best plus/minus on the team at +10.
“I’m going to do what I do,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working on it my whole life so I feel like I get what I deserve. No need to panic right now.”
The reason Johnson needs to think about himself so much right now is that while wins are nice this time of year, they don’t mean much. But how Johnson performs in those wins or losses could determine his future, as it will for dozens of other players without guaranteed contracts.
Each team will play at least five games. In the Clippers’ first victory, Johnson, who finished with five points on 2-for-6 shooting, two steals and two rebounds, played just less than half the game. At this pace, if L.A. plays five games, Johnson would get about two games’ worth of minutes on tape. That’s it.
If the difficulty of that situation is weighing on him, Johnson doesn’t show it.
“Hopefully somebody sees something they like and gives me a chance,” he said.
Johnson’s day certainly went better than that of another former Las Vegas high school product who was supposed to make his debut in Friday’s game. Desert Pines High grad Pierre Jackson, the 42nd pick in this year’s draft, sat in the first row wearing a polo shirt for the team he hadn’t officially joined yet.
Jackson was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the New Orleans Pelicans on draft night, but the key piece to that deal, veteran guard Jrue Holiday, was on his honeymoon, which held up the finalization of the deal. It became official Friday evening and Jackson will play in the Pelicans game vs. the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. in the Thomas & Mack Center.
While Jackson was stuck as a fan for his new team, Johnson played in front of a couple of notable Clippers sitting courtside. Olympians Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were in attendance and met with the Summer League roster in their makeshift locker room, as did new Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
“They drop notes in our ears,” Johnson said of the veterans. “They show us that they’re actually here and they want us to do well. We get a lot of opportunity to talk to them and we take advantage.”
The pace of Friday’s game, Johnson said, wasn’t any faster than what he experienced as a Jayhawk. He expects that to change as players get more familiar with one another.
The other thing that could change is the players’ comfort level. Most of them will not play in the NBA next season, but few will want to believe that until it’s official. As long as there are games to be played, there will be someone watching and taking notes.
“There’s always an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I’ll always be ready for it.”