Padecky: Mercurial turn of events for ex-Puma Amanda Johnson

As life-altering experiences go, this one won’t have a bunch of marquee sparkle attached to it for Amanda Johnson. She found out Monday she was drafted in the WNBA’s third round in much the same way so many of us find out a lot of things these days — via a text message. We drafted you, Amanda, wrote Corey Gaines, head coach and general manager of the Phoenix Mercury.

Simple sentence delivered, complex emotional response followed.

“I grabbed a laptop,” said the former Maria Carrillo star, now at Oregon, “and as fast as I could, I went to Twitter to confirm.”

That done, the announcement verified, the news still felt more impersonal than intimate for Johnson. Words on an electronic device hardly smack of handshakes and smiles and voices screaming congratulations. A Twitter reading doesn’t carry the oomph of reality, the kind of reality that will put Johnson in Phoenix on April 29, the kind of reality that makes headlines.

“I was surprised, skeptical,” Johnson said. “Did somebody make a mistake? Was this real? Did this really happen? It was surreal.”

And it wasn’t like Johnson would go around the Eugene campus, drumming up a parade in her honor.

“I didn’t want to go around and tell people,” she said. “That just isn’t my style.”
It isn’t her style, either, to plop in front of the television with a bag of popcorn waiting for her name to be called, grinding, sweating, doubting, agonizing.

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” she said. “I felt I could make a more productive use of my time.”

For anyone who knows her, that last sentence is classic Amanda, the woman who earned her bachelor’s degree in a double major — psychology and sociology — by the end of her sophomore year. Now close to completing her master’s degree in couples and family therapy, Johnson is not one to waste time.

So Johnson spent the WNBA draft working on change-of-direction agility drills, back pedaling, moving side-to-side. She did this — and this is another indication of her dedication to personal growth — to improve her fitness as much as readying herself for a future in pro basketball.

That said, Phoenix coach Corey Gaines was delighted to learn the 33rd person selected in the 2012 WNBA draft was working out. If there is one thing that marks the Mercury’s style of play, it’s fitness. Jelly rolls and love handles need not apply for a spot on this team.

“Amanda is a scorer. She loves to run,” Gaines said. “So many of the kids that come out of college aren’t ready (for the fast pace of the WNBA). In college they use the shot clock and use the shot clock until there’s five seconds left and then they take an off-balance shot with three people in their face. I don’t understand it myself.

“But Amanda, she’s de-programmed (from that). She knows our system.”
Johnson should. Her Oregon coach is Paul Westhead, the same Paul Westhead who had that Los Angeles Laker fling, who coached Gaines at Loyola Marymount. Gaines’ philosophy is the same as Westhead’s: Don’t piddle around with the basketball.

Drive, shoot, penetrate. Start aggressive, stay aggressive. Hit the throttle hard and early.

“It’s liberating, not to be confined to a set of plays,” said Johnson, who averaged 18 points and 9.6 rebounds this season for the Ducks, both team highs. “In some ways it’s an easy offense. Shoot the ball if you are open. If you aren’t open, pass it. Drive the lane if it’s there. It’s a lot about mental toughness. The emphasis is up-tempo. I think I’m pretty well-adjusted to it.”

Which is why Johnson is putting herself through an off-season workout that pleases Gaines. Today, Johnson will undergo underwater therapy, running against jets pushing water against her, creating resistance, all the while taking pressure off her joints. Thursday will be spent sprinting the length of the court numerous times. It’s all done with a single purpose.

“I know what it’s like,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-2 forward, “to get up and down the court 36 times without a break.”
Johnson will report to Phoenix April 29 for a physical, with practice to begin the next day.

What are her chances of making it?

Well, the Mercury do have forward DeWanna Bonner, who was recently named as the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year for the third consecutive season. Then again Johnson has never been one to cower in the face of a challenge. She is the only woman in Oregon history to be named a three-time Academic All-American. She is the only player in Oregon history to rank in the top five all-time in points, rebounds, steals and 3-pointers.

“I’m going to go down there and show them what I got,” Johnson said. “If that supports what they have on the team, great. If not, it’ll be a good learning experience. All I can do is control what I can control: preparation and building my skills.”

As to a career that doesn’t include a basketball court, that will have to wait. Johnson said she will play in Europe once the WNBA season ends.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I can get a job later.”

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.