How Tyler Johnson Transformed From Positionless Player To Crafty Combo

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Thursday April 6th, 2017

Tyler Johnson was the prototypical Summer League prospect, a ball of clay with incredible bounce but undetermined shape. He measured at 6’2” without shoes at the 2014 Portsmouth Invitational, further driving questions about his professional position. He underwhelmed in the scrimmages, perpetuating the skepticism regarding his modest numbers at Fresno State.

The series of unfortunate events rivaled a Lemony Snicket novel. Johnson would only garner pre-draft workouts with three teams, one of which—a trial in front of the Lakers’ brass—was more as an animated arm chair against Dante Exum than a legitimate audition. He was destined to toil in the D-League. The fact that Johnson has emerged as an integral member of the playoff-bound Miami Heat is a mind-boggling anomaly.

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The path from grizzled D-Leaguer to $50 million man is certainly convoluted. Players seek to gain any advantage and iron every wrinkled skill in between layovers and commercial flights. When Johnson finally found stable footing with the Heat, that curiosity continued.

While receiving routine treatment at Miami’s practice facility in February 2015, fresh off signing a multi-year contract at the conclusion of his second 10-day stint, Johnson noticed a pair of gloves stashed in the training room. The black-and-gold mitts looked like a misplaced element of a superhero costume. With a weighted top and slippery palms, the gloves were designed to help mold the next generation of elite ball handlers.

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Johnson wore them during ball-handling drills in the subsequent practice, at strength and conditioning coach Eric Foran’s suggestion. The added weight strengthens a player’s forearms, wrists and fingers. Each dribble morphs from a routine exercise into a struggle. “You gotta really pound the ball and when you take it off, you’re a natural,” Johnson said. The anti-grip sheepskin leather on the palms emphasizes yo-yoing the ball with your fingertips.

The Powerhandz gloves are a manifestation of Darnell Jones’s personal training method. The former Mesa State College captain created the first iteration of the product as a teenager in Salt Lake City. Jones was a lethal shooter in high school, but struggled creating off the bounce. An article about Jason Williams dribbling with gardening gloves provided Jones’s initial inspiration. “How could I make this as adverse as possible?” Jones wondered. He then supplemented the exercise by strapping his mother’s ankle weights to his wrists.

Jones continued to wear the contraption while drilling ball handling through his collegiate career and with the Utah Eagles in the CBA. When his playing career concluded, Jones began working with Deron Williams’s AAU team and brought the method with him. From there, the concept of forming an all-inclusive product was born. Shortly after Jones met his wife Danyel—a union sparked within the medical device industry—the perfect marketing and creative partner presented herself in addition to matrimony. Powerhandz officially launched in July 2014.

Danyel’s innovation may have been the most important element to the product’s rise in basketball. That ritzy, gold finish that transforms Johnson’s hands into a Marvel character’s fists? Danyel drew inspiration from the speckled Jordan 4 cement colorway. Aesthetic is a key ingredient for the modern NBA player. You can’t just train harder and faster—you have to look cool while doing it. In turn, the gloves have appeared across the Instagram accounts of Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Devin Booker. “Almost every NBA team has our product in their training room,” Danyel said.

Johnson has incorporated the gloves further than anyone. After that initial training session two years ago, he’s utilized the mitts for all of his individual ball-handling work. He bought a pair to wear during off-season workouts.

A stronger, more forceful dribble has helped him evolve from a positionless vagabond into a crafty combo guard, capable of attacking closeouts and manipulating pick and rolls all the way to the rim. Johnson has spent 27.4% of his possessions this season as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports, the 51st highest rate in the NBA—quite the mark for an undrafted prospect labeled more athlete than skillset.

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Johnson refreshes that ability during each pregame workout. “It just kind of activates you a little better,” he told The Crossover. Before the Heat’s 105–88 win over the Knicks on Mar. 29, Johnson weaved the ball through his legs and behind his back on the Garden floor, keeping the orange leather on a string despite the gloves’ slippery material.

He then took the product one step further, exploding out of a mimicked pick and roll to loft a floater over an imaginary defender. The gloves force Johnson to master the perfect soft touch on the push shot, where an extra ounce of force can be the difference between a basket and a clank off the back rim—and too gentle of a hoist can result in an embarrassing airball.

“When you get it, the ball feels a little bit lighter, so it’s easier to navigate the ball,” Johnson explained. Perhaps the most unlikely NBA player, he has turned the Jones’s invention into the basketball version of a baseball bat donut.

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