Denzel Johnson’s basketball odyssey – inspired by “Uncle” Gary – is headed overseas.
And while playing in Italy is a far cry from the NBA, it’s a start for the former Clovis West High standout who gained perspective into professional basketball through his relationship with Gary Payton, the former nine-time All-Star known as “The Glove” for his defensive prowess.
Johnson, who was The Bee’s Player of the Year in 2011, recently signed his first pro contract with Nature Nardo of Italy’s Serie C league a little more than a year after wrapping up his college career at Santa Clara.
“It’s amazing,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve known I wanted to do for quite a long time.”
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Johnson’s dreams of playing pro basketball began to form when he was 8, during a year spent living in Seattle. He caught all 41 home games Payton played for the NBA’s Sonics.
Johnson estimates he’s seen roughly 300 NBA games because of his ties to Payton – best friends with Johnson’s father, C.J., a former San Jose State football player. Payton and C.J. Johnson were best men in each others’ weddings and are godfathers to each others’ sons. The families are so close, Johnson always has referred to Payton as his uncle.
If it wasn’t for (Payton), I would have been playing football. I’m glad the connection was there so I could see success at a very high level. From a young age, it clicked that this is what I wanted to do.
Former Clovis West High standout Denzel Johnson on the role family friend and ex-NBA All-Star Gary Payton played in spurring Johnson’s pro basketball dreams
“If it wasn’t for (Payton), I would have been playing football,” Johnson said. “I’m glad the connection was there so I could see success at a very high level. From a young age, it clicked that this is what I wanted to do.”
After a decorated career at Clovis West – he was Tri-River Conference MVP, a first-team all-state section and a McDonald’s All-America nominee in 2011 – Johnson moved on to Santa Clara.
He played in 117 of 133 games over four seasons with the Broncos, making 43 starts, including all 32 in his senior season in 2014-2015. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 8.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a senior.
After graduating from Santa Clara last year, Johnson signed with agent Mike Baron. Professional interest was low at the time, with most coaches saying he needed to develop more physical toughness.
So Johnson went into training with Payton’s son, Gary II, and some other aspiring NBA players in the Bay Area. He also worked at home in Fresno with trainer Steve Sobonya to improve his strength.
And when Baron started shopping Johnson’s services this year, he found a match in Nardo, which envisions Johnson as a combo point and shooting guard.
“I definitely feel I’m ready,” Johnson said. “Basketball is in my blood.”
Johnson will take with him overseas an important lesson learned from Uncle Gary.
“Anyone who got to watch (Payton) play knows he was a defensive monster,” said Johnson, who will depart for Italy in mid-August ahead of a regular season that runs from October through April. “And at a young age, he let me know if your guy can’t score, any coach would love to have you.
“That’s one way to always be on the floor. If you are the best defender, you will be on the floor.”
Johnson hopes his example will lead other Fresno youths to chase after a pro career.
I hope it inspires other kids to know they can do it, too, if they put the work in.
Johnson on serving as an example to youngsters dreaming of a pro career
“What I’m really happy about is the kids coming up in Fresno can see there are guys coming out of the same city that can play professionally,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to add my name to the list of guys playing pro out of my city and looking forward to the challenge.”