Storm Gets New-Look Johnson

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Kevin Pelton, | May 9, 2006
That the Seattle Storm is getting a different Tiffani Johnson than the one that was waived by the Houston Comets last spring was evident as soon as Johnson arrived in Seattle last weekend.

"We had a conversation before we agreed to bring her in," Storm Coach Anne Donovan recalled Tuesday, after Johnson practiced with the Storm for the second time. "We hadn't seen her, but the commitment from her agent and from Tiffani was that she had her body in shape, she was serious about the game. It was great to see her get off the plane and have it be true, not be a fable that we all bought in to."

"It motivated me to kick it into high gear, get in better shape and do everything I can to get back in the league."
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
Johnson spent five seasons in Houston, three of them as a starter, and felt her job was secure last year. But after the Comets drafted center Sancho Lyttle and signed veteran post Tari Phillips as a free agent, Johnson became expendable. She was waived on May 17, and the move changed Johnson's outlook.

"Any time something like that happens, you lose your job, it's devastating," she said Tuesday. "So it motivated me to kick it into high gear, get in better shape and do everything I can to get back in the league.

"I'm not mad. I don't hold any bitter feelings toward (Comets Coach) Van (Chancellor). I thank God it happened. Look at me now. Had it not happened, I might not be standing here looking like this today."

Johnson took the summer off before heading to Slovakia to play for K Cero ICP (mid-season, she would switch teams, going to play in Poland for Wisla Can-Pack Krakow). Then she got serious about remaking her body, a process helped by her foreign practice schedule.

"In Europe, the practices are extremely hard," Johnson explained. "I started lifting weight - instead of lifting three times a week, I tried to do it four or five times a week or every day if I can. Also, diet. I am a vegetarian, I've been a vegetarian for some time now, but early on I was substituting meat for and junk food and bad food. I regrouped and had to change that."

The results of Johnson's work are obvious. She says she has dropped at least 40 pounds or so over the past year, getting down to her listed weight of 195 from when she entered the league. Johnson hasn't done it at the expense of her strength, and she still sets a mean screen.

When she signed Johnson (along with fellow training-camp invitee Shaunzinski Gortman), Donovan was hoping the experience of spending last season out of the WNBA would serve as a motivational factor. In Johnson's case in particular, that is precisely what has happened.

"I'm hungry," Johnson said. "Somebody comes and takes food of your plate, your family's plate, you can't feed your family."

Johnson left Poland on Friday, following the conclusion of the Polish League Finals, won by her Wisla Can-Pack Krakow squad, arriving in her hometown of Charlotte that evening. She had less than a day before flying on to arrive in Seattle Saturday night. Having yet to practice, Johnson watched Sunday's preseason win over the New York Liberty in street clothes.

The last player to arrive at Storm training camp, Johnson is inevitably behind. But she did show off some of the skills that intrigued Donovan while the Storm scrimmaged its mostly-male practice squad on Tuesday, scoring on a turnaround in the post and making a nice move before banking in a runner in the lane.

"I'm learning, trying to learn everything," said Johnson. "It's hard when you come into a new system and they throw 10 plays at you and five minutes later you have to play. It's a matter of getting comfortable, learning the offense. Other than that, it's been great."

"She's got a lot to learn," said Donovan. "She's behind our system, obviously, and because we're focusing so much on defense in this early stage, it's important she picks things up quickly."

Tiffani Johnson was a guest on this week's edition of StormCast on Click here to listen.
With the Storm losing starting center Janell Burse for the near future after she re-aggravated a partial tear of her left shoulder labrum, Johnson will get plenty of reps and opportunity right away, including this weekend's pair of preseason games at Chicago and Minnesota.

In addition to her work down low, Johnson has showed already an ability to step away from the basket and be effective. Donovan appreciates that kind of versatility.

As compared to the other posts against whom Johnson is battling for roster spots, Simone Edwards and Lindsay Taylor, "She's got a little more perimeter to her game, a little more range," said Donovan. "When we played Houston and she was with them, I was really impressed with her range, 16-17 feet. I think defensively she's got the footwork to play differently than those two do."

After talking with four or five teams, Johnson chose this winter to come to Seattle because the Storm offered a similar situation to what she enjoyed in Houston.

"First of all, it's a winning team," Johnson said. "They're contenders, year in and year out. That was definitely a plus. And just the players - they have Olympians, All-Stars, and that's what I'm accustomed to coming out of Houston. Coming from a contender, I didn't want to go to a (different kind of) team. I'm too old for that."

Maybe. But Johnson wasn't too old to remake her body and, perhaps, her WNBA future.