Hoping to Find a Home Where His Heart Is

NBA journeyman DerMarr Johnson, from Silver Spring, signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Wizards on Sept. 22.
NBA journeyman DerMarr Johnson, from Silver Spring, signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Wizards on Sept. 22. (By Rocky Widner -- Nbae/getty Images)
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By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

RICHMOND, Oct. 1 -- The skills that made DerMarr Johnson a star high school player in Silver Spring and later led the Atlanta Hawks to select him with the sixth overall pick of the 2000 NBA draft were on full display Wednesday during Wizards training camp practice.

At different points during the highly competitive practice, Johnson deflected a Juan Dixon pass into the air, retrieved it and raced the other way for a breakaway dunk, slashed to the basket for a smooth, finger-roll layup and drained jump shots on consecutive possessions.

"That was his best practice of camp so far," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "DerMarr had a really good day, no question about it. He just falls into that category of making us really long and big. He's moving better as the camp goes along, he's putting the ball on the floor and his shot will come around. He hasn't made a ton of shots but I'm sure he will."

Johnson, who signed a non-guaranteed contract on Sept. 22, faces an uphill battle in trying to crack a Wizards roster that is stacked with guards.

With Gilbert Arenas out until at least December or January, veterans Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson will start while Nick Young, Dee Brown and Dixon are battling for roles as backups.

Unlike Johnson, Brown and Dixon have partially guaranteed contracts. Dixon has familiarity with Jordan's system and Brown fills a need as a backup point guard. Also battling for spots are forwards Linton Johnson and Taj McCullough.

To make it, DerMarr Johnson will need a few more performances like the one he turned in Wednesday, but that doesn't mean he is feeling extra pressure.

Johnson has started 136 NBA games -- more than Dixon, Young and Brown combined -- in stints with the Hawks, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs.

After averaging a career-best 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 72 games during his second season with the Hawks in 2001-02, Johnson injured his back and neck in a car accident.

Since then, Johnson has bounced around the league looking for a team and situation that fits. Right now, he's hoping to find it in his home town.

"I never thought about playing here earlier in my career because every time my team came to town, I had to buy like 60 tickets because I have so much family and friends out here," said Johnson, who played one season of college basketball at Cincinnati. "I was like: 'If I played here every game, I'll go broke just trying to get tickets.' But now that I'm a little older in my career, I have wanted to play here. I love my city."

To prove his point, Johnson lifted up his sweat-soaked practice jersey to reveal a tattoo of the Capitol building on his chest. On either side of it are the letters "D" and "C." After Johnson was impressive while working out with Wizards players at Verizon Center over the summer, the team signed him but only promised him an opportunity to come to camp.

The rest is up to Johnson, whose 6-foot-9 frame and slashing ability make him unique among Wizards guards.

"It's tough because nothing is guaranteed but ultimately I want to play here," Johnson said. "If I have to, I'll explore another team, but ideally, I'll come out and show what I can do and make them keep me. That's what I'm trying to do."

Wizards Notes: The Wizards capped Wednesday's lone practice with a lengthy five-on-five, full-court scrimmage with a trio of referees monitoring the action. Jordan said he scheduled more scrimmaging in this year's camp practice plans than in the past.

One reason is that the bulk of the team, including the entire starting five, has been in Jordan's system for at least two full seasons. As a result, the coaches don't have to stop the action as much for instruction and the scrimmaging has been both competitive and crisp.

"We have [scrimmaged more] because the offense is ahead of where it was last year," Jordan said. "And we're ahead on the defense. It's more quality scrimmaging." . . . Dominic McGuire (groin) did not practice while Young (sore knee) was limited. Because his team went so hard during the morning session, Jordan canceled the evening practice.

The team will practice once Thursday and then close camp with an official scrimmage Friday evening. The scrimmage, at the Siegel Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, will be open to the public.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company