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Clippers’ newest additions used turmoil to alter their path to NBA

Tennessee's Keon Johnson participates during a drill at the pre-draft combine.
Tennessee’s Keon Johnson participates during a drill at the pre-draft combine, where he turned heads with a record-setting 48-inch vertical leap.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Before Keon Johnson could sprint away from the mortar tube, the firework he’d slipped inside already was bursting toward him.

The unexpectedly quick explosion, caused by a short fuse, pushed him backward, knocking him momentarily unconscious.

When the 13-year-old awoke in June 2015, less than two months before he was to begin high school in Tennessee, his chest and legs were burned. Bones from four broken fingers on his left hand pushed through skin. Inside the ambulance that carried him to a hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Johnson said he heard paramedics question whether the hand would require amputation.

Emergency surgery repaired blood flow to his fingers and saved the hand but required pins to be inserted into his middle and ring fingers, Johnson said.

Six years later, Johnson gripped the brim of a baseball hat between his hands, tugging it tight over his hair as he walked across a stage Thursday in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center as the 21st overall pick in the NBA draft, bound for the Clippers, who traded to acquire the 6-foot-5 Tennessee wing.

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The athleticism Johnson displayed during his lone season with the Volunteers and at the pre-draft combine, where his 48-inch vertical leap set a record, was undeniably a factor in his arrival to the NBA.

The Clippers selected Tennessee wing Keon Johnson, Jason Preston and Brandon Boston in the NBA draft on Thursday.

But so too, he said, was the traumatic moment with the firework that nearly took that future away.

“It taught me a lot about myself, surrounding myself around the right people and also me doing what’s right not only on the court, but also doing what’s right off the court,” Johnson said shortly after being selected. “I just felt like that was a teaching moment for me. That was God’s way of sending a sign to me of me needing to be better.”

Johnson’s recovery for nearly three months kept him away from basketball, the sport his mother, Conswella, dominated as a Tennessee high schooler before becoming an all-SEC player at Auburn. His recovery left him “more cautions of how I go about my life” — but also more focused on the opportunities that nearly blew up in front of him.

A difficult path to the Clippers is something shared by all three members of the team’s draft class. Their resiliency was not overlooked in their evaluations.

“We recruit people, not just players,” Clippers President Lawrence Frank said. “They obviously have to be good enough, but it is about people, and you’re placing, you know, for lack of a better term, you’re placing bets on guys to have NBA careers.”

Jason Preston, a 6-4 point guard from Ohio taken 33rd overall and acquired in a trade with Orlando, lost his mother to lung cancer when he was in high school, and his prep career was so unremarkable that he planned to enroll at Central Florida focused on academics and began blogging about the NBA for a Detroit Pistons site at age 17. Then a friend invited him to two AAU tournaments because the team was short a player.

Preston played well enough to land an invitation to a prep school in Tennessee, where his uphill climb began again. The school’s roster included more than 60 players. Preston started on one of its lowest-rated teams before his improvement, and a last-gasp decision to post highlights of his passing prowess on social media built enough interest to land a scholarship to Ohio, where he became one of the Mid-American Conference’s best players and a darling of the Bobcats’ NCAA tournament run in March.

“He’s an incredible story,” Frank said.

The Clippers added three young players in the NBA draft Thursday, and the team’s top executive says retaining Kawhi Leonard and other veterans is the priority.

BJ Boston, a 6-7 wing from Norcross, Ga., arrived at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon to play alongside Ziaire Williams and Bronny James as a five-star recruit and left bound for Kentucky as a projected top-10 pick.

But the 19-year-old’s lone season in Lexington, where a hand injury limited him to shooting 38% inside the arc and 30% beyond it, paled against such lottery-pick expectations, and he slid to 51st, where the Clippers acquired him in a trade.

The trade returns Boston to Los Angeles, where he worked out with the Clippers twice. In April, Boston reportedly was following a car driven by Kentucky teammate Terrence Clarke after their workout together at a Chatsworth gym when Clarke was involved in a fatal crash. Boston joins a team with another Clarke connection in guard Terance Mann, who shared a club team with Clarke and had seen him only days before the accident.

Frank could not discuss Boston’s addition because the trade cannot be made official until the new league year begins next week, but Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters Thursday that Boston “is going to use tonight as fuel, and is going to have a great NBA career.”

Johnson also expects to repay the Clippers’ faith in their selection, which he was still processing minutes after he left the stage. Speaking by phone, he described feeling a “big sigh of relief” on the night his life changed, for a second time.


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