AJ Johnson has paid tribute to the NBL and Illawarra Hawks for helping him on his journey to the NBA.

27 Jun

He’s the latest NBL Next Star to land in the NBA, and AJ Johnson couldn’t be more grateful for his time in Australia.

While the new Milwaukee Bucks draftee logged fairly limited minutes during his time in the NBL, he says the chance to play alongside and against experienced professionals was invaluable.

Johnson was selected with the 23rd overall pick on day one of the NBA Draft, defying mock drafts and expert predictions to make a sharp rise up teams’ draft boards late in the piece.

“I loved my time in Australia,” he told ESPN.

“Playing with professionals at an early age and just picking their brains, seeing what they do to be great professionals – that was really good for my development on and off the court.”

“I’m super proud of myself sticking through the Australian season, knowing things didn’t go my way but just continuing to believe in myself every single day and just continuing to take steps in getting better and looking at the bigger picture,” Johnson continued in his post-draft press conference. 

“I feel like it was a great experience being out there.”

Johnson also paid tribute to the Illawarra Hawks and Justin Tatum, who joined the club mid-season and led the early-season easy-beats to a memorable Finals run.

“It was a good experience. I feel like he (Tatum) just gave us a lot of freedom on the court, and I feel like that took our team to another level. It was great having him,” the 19-year-old told ESPN.

The recent NBA Draft Combine was where Johnson put his name up in lights, prompting calls of a potential round one selection. 

His dunk over Nique Clifford was one of the standout moments of the event. 

“I feel like I can do stuff out there that you might not see a lot, and I feel like I can help any organisation win,” he said. 

“Believe in yourself more than anything. Show people the hard work you’ve been putting in and the vision you see, and just put it out there.” 

While Johnson wasn’t among the green room invite list, he and a large following of family and friends were at the Barclays Center to experience a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

“There’s no feeling like it, just having everyone who’s been a part of your journey since the beginning and have seen you grow. There’s nothing like having them here with me to experience this with me,” he told the media. 

Now, another Next Star is an NBA player, and among his teammates, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“There’s no feeling like it. It’s just so surreal to me,” Johnson said of playing with the two-time league MVP.

“I’m trying to continue just to soak it in, but it’s truly a blessing.”

Four next stars, Bobi Klintman, Trentyn Flowers, Ariel Hukporti and Mantas Rubstavicius will be in the mix to be drafted on Friday, with live coverage on ESPN via Kayo from 6am AEST. 

French phenom Alex Sarr was taken with the second overall pick by the Washington Wizards.

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