Darussafaka Istanbul has made it look easy so far this season by winning both its regular season and Top 16 groups to reach the quarterfinals with the home-court advantage in its best-of-three series against Buducnost VOLI Podgorica. While 7DAYS EuroCup Regular Season MVP Scottie Wilbekin has grabbed a lot of the headlines, power forward JaJuan Johnson has also played a major role for Coach David Blatt’s side. In his third EuroCup season, Johnson is finally playing for a top contender and is definitely delivering, leading Darussafaka in rebounds (6.2 rpg.) and serving as its second-best scorer (14.5 ppg.). He also ranks second in the competition in blocks (1.6 bpg.). Johnson is determined to lead Darussafaka to the EuroCup Semifinals for the first time, but to do so he must defeat his former teammate and close friend Kyle Gibson of Buducnost. The two were were teammates on Italian side Giorgio Tesi Group Pistoia in the 2013-14 season and have kept in touch since. In this EuroCupbasketball.com interview, Johnson said the two have been waiting for this moment. "We talked about it and are excited to finally play against each other. Me and Kyle, we hang out a lot. In the summertime, we talk almost every day, we are pretty good friends. It is actually cool to go against him and just play" Johnson said. "We thought we would have the opportunity to play against each other this season, even in the Top 16. This is even better know, we will play in the higher stages of the competition."
Congratulations on a great season. Darussafaka was first in both of its groups until now. With so many new players, what allowed you to be so consistent from day one?
"Thanks. I think that, from the beginning with his team, in training camp, everybody was determined and kind of had something to prove this season. It really helps that we spend a lot of time with each other outside the basketball court. Everybody gets along and it just has been a very special group."
You played in the EuroCup before but this time you are an important player on a title contender. How excited are you about this opportunity?
"I am very excited, you know? This is one of the reasons why I came. Dacka was a great opportunity to compete at a really high level. Obviously, the Turkish League is really competitive and I also had the opportunity to play for a good coach. With that, I thought we could have a really good team in the EuroCup and make a big impact."
Darussafaka faces Buducnost. That gives you the chance to play against a former teammate, Kyle Gibson. Have you two talked about it already?
"Yes, we talked about it and are excited to finally play against each other. Me and Kyle, we hang out a lot. In the summertime, we talk almost every day, we are pretty good friends. It is actually cool to go against him and just play. We thought we would have the opportunity to play against each other this season, even in the Top 16. This is even better know, we will play in the higher stages of the competition. I am happy for him. His team is doing a really good job this year and they have a really good coach. It will be a tough matchup, but I think we can come out there and play good games."
In general terms, what needs to be done to beat a tough team like Buducnost, and how important can be the home-court advantage be in this series?
"The home-court advantage is really big for us. I think that they have a lot of talented players who can play one-on-one on offense. It will be a good matchup because we start with our defense. I think it should go down to who brings out the best against the other - their offense or our defense."
How comfortable do you feel playing for head coach David Blatt? What is the best thing about him as a coach and how much influence did he have on bringing you to the team this season?
"He was a huge reason why I chose to come here. Obviously, I had a few offers but his resume kind of speaks for itself. He had dealt with different types of players and from what I heard, it has only been good things that people say about Coach Blatt. He is a good players' coach and understands the game a lot. Our players have bought in to what he says to us. Every day in practice, we just try to go out there and execute what he says."
Looking around the competition, which teams do you see as the biggest candidates to challenge Darussafaka for the title?
"You know? Right now, Buducnost is in front of us and we cannot overlook those guys. They are here for a reason, just like we are. They earned their position and obviously, you can't help to look at what Lokomotiv has done. Bayern Munich also did a great job this season. We beat UNICS Kazan twice, but I would say they are one of the toughest teams that we played in the EuroCup. Those teams made some pretty good runs this year."
Of course, all eight teams are in a different situation than a month ago. What did you guys do to stay on track and keep growing as a team?
"It is good to have a little break, especially for guys with small injuries and different things like that; they just got some rest. We really practiced hard and tried to concentrate on ourselves, tried to improve some things that we can do better on offense and defense. Our guys are hungry to go out there."
According to your social media, you seem to be a big fan of TV series and shows, current and vintage. How do you like to watch series and what are your favorite shows?
"I think my favorite TV show or series of all-time is either Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy. I think these are my two favorites. I am digging into cartons even now. I watch Rick and Morty, Family Guy, those two are probably my favorite cartoons at the moment. Growing up, I used to watch a lot of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, all that stuff. Also Martin and all those other TV shows as well."
You are also in touch with a lot of American players around Europe. How important is it for you guys to stay connected?
"Yes, for sure. Obviously today, with all the technology that we have, it is a lot easier now. Even before the season, I might ask older players who have been there, in Darussafaka - how the team is, how the fans are, different things like that. You can get a lot of information from those guys. When I was first coming over to Europe, I was fortunate enough to talk to David Logan. He really helped me out a lot. He gave me a lot of information about Europe in general and how it works over here, because it is a little different than the NBA, how things are. I had a lot of help back then."
Darussafaka has been really strong this season. You guys are six wins away from being EuroCup champions. What will it take to go all the way?
"You know, just stay together as a team, listen to Coach Blatt, what he has to say and of course, be aggressive on defense. It is what we kind of have been relying on all season. Obviously, we need to score some points. If we can do those things, we will give ourselves a good opportunity to hold that trophy up."