AJ Johnson has credited interim head coach Justin Tatum for his rapidly increasing development, but Tatum believes Johnson's teammates are providing the blueprint for the draft hopeful's improvement.

12 Jan
Dan Woods for

Should AJ Johnson get drafted this year, he will almost certainly enter the NBA as one of the youngest players on any roster for next season, and after an ill-timed nose injury curtailed his early season, the Next Star is beginning to deliver on his undoubted potential with the Illawarra Hawks.

Johnson suffered a broken nose during the Hawks’ pre-season preparations and, upon his return, struggled to impose himself in Illawarra’s rotation under former head coach Jacob Jackomas. However Johnson, like a number of fellow Hawks, has thrived under noted development specialist Justin Tatum.

Tatum’s resume when arriving at the Hawks in an assisting capacity is chock full of high-level underage programs, and Johnson pulled together a season-high 11 points in last week’s win over the Phoenix.

Johnson says Tatum’s coaching style has been perfect for getting the best out of him.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Stepping it up ??<br><br>AJ Johnson scored a silky 11 points in the <a href="">@illawarrahawks</a> dominant Round 14 victory ?<br><br>Check out his highlights → <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">January 6, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

“He’s hard on me, but he means well and I can tell he wants me to succeed,” Johnson said via The Illawarra Mercury.

“I’m the youngest in the team, I just came from high school, so being a role player makes sense but he still wants me to have that aggression like I’m not a role player.

“Whenever I’m not being aggressive, not getting on the rim – if he sees me being passive – he’ll get me into it or get me out.

“He wants me to be aggressive and play like I’m not just a role player [and] I’m a big piece of the team.”

Johnson was just 18 at the time of signing for the Hawks in pre-season, and he only turned 19 at the start of December last year. He’ll still only be 19 by the time of the NBA Draft.

His tender age coupled with his long and wiry frame left some questioning whether he could deal with the physicality and rigour of one of the world’s top professional basketball leagues, but he believes the NBL has offered the perfect platform for him to prove those doubters wrong.

“I needed to get ready for the physicality of professional basketball in general,” Johnson continued.

“A big thing people tried to say about me was ‘oh, we don’t know if you can handle the physicality’.

“I just thought ‘straight out of high school I’m going to the most physical basketball league in the world and prove everybody wrong’.”

Coach Tatum added the entire Hawks group has been key in allowing Johnson to flourish in his first season as a professional.

“It’s a testament to him as an individual but then his teammates are challenging him to say ‘where can you help us?’ and ‘get yourself better in those areas’," Tatum said.

“We have so many different types of teammates on this team that can help him. Old guys, young guys, hard working guys. He’s just been taking a page out of each one of those books and he’s developing how he is.

“He’s putting on weight, he’s talking more, he’s shooting the ball better from the three – but he’s making better decisions, [and] that’s what I’m happier about than anything.”

Johnson and the Hawks play tonight against the Tasmania JackJumpers at 7:30pm AEDT, live on ESPN via Kayo.

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