If you hadn’t heard the name Alize Johnson before he signed with the Chicago Bulls in early September, not many would blame you.
Johnson has appeared in just 49 games across three NBA seasons, and while in niche circles he’s built an intriguing reputation based on his gaudy rebounding numbers and unmatched motor, the fourth-year forward is still in the prove-it stage of his professional career.
But upon signing with the Bulls, Johnson set the tone for his tenure early.
“On my way to Chicago. MOOD! Let’s work!” Johnson tweeted on Sept. 6, accompanied by a fiery GIF of Dennis Rodman:
Johnson, who entered camp on a non-guaranteed two-year contract, has gone on to impress in preseason play, and appears a shoo-in to land one of the Bulls' two remaining roster spots.
For good measure, he called Rodman one of his biggest basketball influences after the team's Tuesday practice.
“His energy, competitiveness and just (being) a winner. Right now I'm trying to be that,” Johnson said of Rodman. “When I go out there and rebound, I have a knack for the ball. I love to do it. It's something that goes unnoticed on the floor sometimes, but it's one of my strengths.”
Rodman — who, like Johnson, stands 6-foot-7 — pulled down 13.1 boards per game, won seven rebound crowns and five NBA titles in his career. While it would be a tall task to match that Hall-of-Fame level of acclaim, Johnson said he is focused on emulating as much of Rodman's mentality as he can. Johnson first became acquainted with "The Worm" during the Bulls’ second three-peat, but said he’s recently dusted off old film to study.
“Just techniques and angles and ways you can get around on guys and get rebounds,” Johnson said of his takeaways from Rodman's tape. “It's a lot to it (rebounding). But then again it's just effort. So any time I can go out there, any time it goes up in the air and I can go get one, I'm gonna try every time.”
In vying for one of the Bulls’ final guaranteed slots, the effort level Johnson speaks of has been on full display. In just 15.9 minutes per game, he is averaging 8.7 points, 10.3 rebounds (3.3 offensive) and three assists while shooting 71.4 percent from the field in three preseason appearances. Functioning as the team’s de facto backup center with Tony Bradley sidelined, he has surmounted massive size disadvantages to earn head coach Billy Donovan’s trust.
"I have great respect for him because he's in there with Tacko Fall battling his tail off. And he's in there against (Evan) Mobley and (Jarrett) Allen and how does this guy come down with rebounds?" Donovan said. "He's just got a tenacious attitude.
"I don't worry about (size) with him (playing center) because the one thing about Alize is he has rebounded at every level he's been at, whether it's been high school, college or now the NBA. That's just what he's going to do… The rim protection, you don't get that. But you get other things.”
Johnson best performance came Sunday night, when he scored 14 points (5-for-6 shooting, 4-for-5 on free throws) and pulled down 11 rebounds (three offensive) in the Bulls’ second preseason matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In one telling play, he corralled a pass from Alex Caruso, burrowed into the 7-foot tall Mobley’s chest, and burst to the rim for a flailing and-one finish. Later in the contest, he vacuumed an offensive rebound over the 7-foot-5 Fall, then drew free throws on a putback attempt through 6-foot-9 Dean Wade.
Johnson’s tape is dotted with sequences such as these, regardless of matchup.
“Wherever Coach (Donovan) puts me on the floor, I'm gonna go out there and compete,” Johnson said. “I'm position-less. And I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Johnson’s path to Chicago hasn’t been conventional. The Williamsport, Pa. native and eldest child of seven siblings began his collegiate career at Frank Phillips, a community college in Borger, Texas. After his sophomore year, he transferred to Missouri State, where he averaged 14.9 points and 11.6 rebounds across 66 games.
He was then selected 50th overall by the Indiana Pacers in the 2018 draft, but has oscillated between the NBA and — impressive — G League stints since. A particularly productive 18-game stretch with the Brooklyn Nets last season ended when the team waived him as part of their bevy of offseason moves, opening the door for the Bulls to take a flyer.
“Me having to go to junior college at first and then being an underdog just trying to fight my way through this whole process has just helped me really have this motor and hustle,” Johnson said. “And then the fact I'm coming from a small city, I got a big family, a lot on my plate. I just want to prove each and every day that I belong.”
But don’t be fooled: Johnson’s game isn’t fully confined to the glass. He is also an adept ball-handler and passer for his position, and compensates for a relative lack of vertical explosiveness by getting off his feet fast and using feathery touch on floaters and runners. That varied skill set, he said, derives from a growth spurt in high school that rocketed him from being a 5-9 point guard as a freshman to 6-7 as a junior.
“Those guard skills just stuck with me,” Johnson said. “To improve my game I started adding rebounding, since I got height. Just bringing it up, trying to be a point-forward, that's kind of been my thing, trying to create for others in transition.”
Music to the Bulls’ ears, given their desire to play at a faster tempo this season.
And for Bulls observers impressed by what they have seen from Johnson so far, he has a parting message.
“I got way more energy in me,” he said. “I'm gonna keep showing (that) more and more each and every game.”