Flip’s staff didn’t believe in Amir

After yesterday's gushing post, I'm hesitant to pile on, but this is too weird not to mention. Did you ever feel like the odds were sometimes stacked against Amir Johnson during the Flip Saunders era? It's because they were. From Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:

Somewhere there is a former Pistons assistant coach who ought to be checking his vital signs. Two years ago, the assistant on Flip Saunders' coaching staff looked at Amir Johnson clanking one ugly-looking jumper after another during warmups and said, "As long as I am alive, Amir Johnson will never be in an NBA rotation."

Well sir, don't look now. Johnson will not only be in the rotation for tonight's opener against the Pacers, he will be the starting power forward for a Pistons team that again is expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title.

"Who said that? Damn," Johnson said. "That's OK. That just gives me fuel. Whoever the doubters are, man, I am going to prove everybody wrong."

I encourage you to read the rest of the article, which offers a rare glimpse into Johnson's first two years in the league, including how difficult it was for an 18-year-old to adjust to life as a pro, and the not-entirely surprising revelation that Johnson's now-impressive work ethic took some time to develop.

Back then, it was hard for fans trying to follow his progress -- his name was rarely mentioned in the media aside from an occasional one-liner at the end of an article whenever he was assigned to or promoted from the D-League. Even up-to-date D-League stats were hard to come by, though it was apparent that he was tearing it up. I remember it being a tad frustrating, though considering the rest of the team was busy winning a league-high 64 games in 2005-06, it was an extremely minor nuisance.

(Also, for what it's worth, Amir's jumper still looks awkward, even if he gets relatively decent results.)

Just for kicks, I'm curious who this naysayer was that thought fit to bury a 19-year-old rather than try developing him ...

Flip's first season on the job in 2005-06 coincided with Amir's rookie year. That year, Flip's assistants were Sidney Lowe, Don Zierden, Ron Harper, Kevin Wilson and Igor Kokoskov, none of whom are still with the team.

Lowe and Zierden left after the first year -- Lowe took over at NC State and Zierden took over the WNBA's Lynx. Harper and Wilson simply didn't have their contracts renewed the summer of 2007. Terry Porter came on board the summer after Flip's first year and stayed two seasons before he was hired by the Suns this past June, taking Kokoskov with him.

In June 2007, McCosky wrote, "Some on the coaching staff believe he will never be more than an end of the bench reserve," which seems to suggest Asst. Coach Negative Nancy was still employed by the team. Since Lowe and Zierden had already been gone for 12 months, we're left with Harper, Wilson, Porter or Kokoskov. Considering Kokoskov's primary role seemed to be in player development, I'm guessing we can rule him out. I know Porter also spent a lot of time putting the Zoo Crew through the paces before games last year, so if I had to guess, I'd probably rule him out, too.

By process of elimination, we're left with Harper and Wilson. It's a coin flip, right? Perhaps. But in this article from 2007, Ron Harper described how talented Amir was and how he enjoyed teaching him. And in hindsight, it seems like Dumars really wanted to get Wilson out of town.

Wilson was one of Flip's most-trusted friends and mentors -- in fact, Wilson actually recruited and coached Flip at the University of Minnesota back in the 70's. A couple of decades later when Flip was hired by the Timberwolves, he added his former coach to his staff, and he eventually brought him to Detroit when Flip was hired by the Pistons.

When Wilson's contract was up in the summer of 2007, Flip was hoping it would be renewed, and when it wasn't, he told Dumars he'd pay Wilson's salary out of his own pocket. Dumars refused the offer, instead choosing to sign Michael Curry. Could it be Dumars knew Wilson didn't have faith in his young project? Did Wilson oppose to being used as a human springboard?

Maybe. Or maybe not. This is pure conjecture, I could be completely off base, and even if I'm not, it's not like it actually matters. Johnson faced an uphill battle -- he was one of the last five players picked in the 2005 draft, a lot of people doubted him.

And for it's worth, Wilson is no longer in the NBA -- as surprising as it sounds, he's actually the director of admissions at Bethany College in West Virginia, a small school with an enrollment of 800 students. I wish him well, and for his sake I hope all of the 10-year-olds at his basketball camp have perfect form.

The only reason I'm posting this is because curiosity got the best of me and I figured I may as well share my guess. Despite the fact I just devoted a thousand words to this (seriously, I need a new hobby), I place zero importance on actually knowing who said what and when, aside from hoping that Dumars, Curry and the current assistants are all on the same page, which I'm pretty sure they are.

When Dumars introduced Curry, he admitted it was the first time he's hired someone he already knew, and cited his rapport with Curry as one of the reasons he was comfortable turning to a rookie head coach. It's too late for it to really matter for Johnson, but it's certainly good news for Walter Sharpe, not to mention Alex Acker and Will Bynum.

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