Hawks interim coach Justin Tatum has opened up on his plans for NBL Next Star AJ Johnson.

16 Nov

Justin Tatum expects NBA draft prospect AJ Johnson will become a game-winner for the Illawarra Hawks by the end of the NBL season.

But like his predecessor Jacob Jackomas, the new interim coach is feeling no pressure to rush the American wunderkind into the starting five at the last-placed side.

Combo guard Johnson pulled out of the University of Texas to join the NBL's Next Star program in preparation for the 2024 NBA draft.

But the 18-year-old American has averaged only 5.6 minutes across his eight games this season, despite the Hawks' on-court struggles and his status as an elite prospect.

Johnson had been projected to be taken with a first-round pick. 

But more recent mock NBA drafts have fellow Next Stars Alexandre Sarr and Bobi Klintman higher in estimations, and Johnson, without extended game time, slipping to the second round.

In charge from Tuesday after the Hawks (2-7) sacked Jackomas, Tatum has already spoken to Johnson about his modest minutes.

"I talked to AJ and I said, 'I know what you're expecting of yourself and what the world expects of you, but at the end of the day, you just have to play within these four lines and gain your teammates' trust and my trust to be able to get you out there to do that'," Tatum said.

"'We know what your capabilities are but we don't want to gamble on games just to try to get you to go where you're feeling that you're going to go next year'. He understands that.

"I said, 'As long as you work hard in here for me and talk and grow out of your comfort zone, then I'm going to find spots and minutes for you and I know you can help us win'."

Tatum, hired as an assistant to Jackomas this season, has already seen progress from the 198cm-tall Johnson.

"AJ is going to be a useful attribute for us," he said.

"I think the last couple months of him working in training and sitting and hopefully building up his hunger has endured him to come out here and help us win games. 

"I'm not saying it's going to be 18-20 minutes (per game) but I think he's going to be a big factor for us winning some games."

The father of NBA superstar Jayson, Tatum found success as a high-school coach prior to joining the Hawks.

He believes his experience will come in handy mentoring Johnson and Australian big man Lachlan Olbrich, tipped as a possible second-round draft pick.

"I kind of know that mentality and what they've got going," Tatum said.

"With those two guys (Johnson and Olbrich), it's really about teaching them how to fight through adversity. 

"Their skillsets are very high, very talented, they're some of the most talented guys in our league.

"But I feel that they have to fight through adversity and now since they have fought through it and learned a little bit about it, I think they can produce for us."

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