Inside look at how James Johnson turned into incredible Miami Heat weight-loss success story

Miami Heat forward James Johnson, drives to the basket against Philadelphia’s Robert Covington, in the second quarter of the Miami Heat vs Philadelphia 76ERS, NBA game at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, March 01, 2017. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

MIAMI — Weight loss programs use before-and-after photos to attract customers to their service. The Heat use before and after photos to attract players to their “culture.”

James Johnson is proof.

The Heat forward has never been in this kind of shape before. Over the first seven seasons of his NBA career, the 6-foot-9 Johnson didn’t make his body a priority as he arrived to Miami this summer at 275 pounds with 14.5 percent body fat.

Just 64 games into his first season with the Heat, Johnson is down to 238 pounds and 6.75 percent body fat. He missed Monday’s win over the Cavaliers — more out of precaution — after receiving three stitches to close a cut on his right elbow from Saturday, but Johnson hopes to return for Wednesday’s home game against the Hornets.

What got the 30-year-old Johnson to finally make his body a priority after seven mediocre NBA seasons?

Was it the fact that Johnson was forced to take an underwhelming one-year deal worth $4 million this past summer in the middle of a free agency period that included unprecedented spending? Or was Johnson tired of just scratching the surface of how good of a player he could be?

Probably a little bit of both. But the Heat deserve some credit, too.

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Johnson remembers arriving to Miami this past summer and being asked to take a shirtless picture for a before-and-after photo series the team had planned for him.

“I never had done a before-and-after,” Johnson said referring to his previous NBA stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis. “We got in there and they told me I had to take off my shirt. We had to take a before picture. It was weird to me. It was really weird to me. I thought I was going to be the only one because I came in something huge. I thought they were going to show me progress or what I don’t want to get back to.”

But Johnson is not the only player the Heat have asked to do this. It didn’t take him long to realize that.

“I ran through their iPad magazine,” Johnson said. “It was like a magazine, their iPad, their own accomplishments with other players and I saw it with my own eyes. And from the point I saw that iPad, I wanted to change myself.”

Johnson said there were “a ton” of Heat weight-loss success stories on the iPad that blew him away, but he singled out Joe Johnson as the guy who really caught his eye. Why? Joe spent just the final three months of the 2015-16 season with the Heat and he “was still able to change his body like that.”

“It has a lot to do with the player, but all the compliments and all the rewards should go to the Forans,” Johnson said.

That’s Heat strength and conditioning coach Bill Foran, and his son and assistant strength and conditioning coach Eric Foran. Even though Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer with a big pay raise expected to come his way, he plans on keeping the Forans close by as he works to keep from putting weight back on in the offseason.

“I don’t think I’m going to leave Eric Foran or Bill Foran’s side during the summer,” Johnson said with a smile. “I don’t think this is it for me. I still feel I have a long way to go and I want to get there body wise. I think the game will follow.”

Johnson’s new and improved body has already produced a new and improved game. He’s averaging career highs in points (12.1), 3-point percentage (33.9), rebounds (4.9) and assists (3.4) off the bench in his first season with the Heat.

On the defensive end, Johnson has been just as effective. Among players who have played at least 30 games this season, he ranks seventh in the NBA with an opponent field goal percentage of 39.1 percent.

“I love where he’s going,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson. “We want to continue to be open to where he can get to next. Hopefully we’re not going to stop here. Hopefully there’s another level or two or three, whatever it may be, that he can get to.”

And as the weight drips off of him, Johnson feels like a more agile and athletic version of his former shelf. This is coming from a man who could already do a running front flip and a standing back flip before losing the weight, and is also a second-degree back belt with a 21-0 record in kickboxing and 7-0 record in mixed martial arts bouts (and says he can roundhouse kick a wedged basketball off the rim).

“I feel like that the more weight I lose, the more I unleash skills that I didn’t think I was capable of having or doing,” Johnson said. “Just being able to do more things agility wise. I can move, cut through smaller spaces, and definitely give more effort out there in the game. I can go from 100 effort to 150 now.”

A clean diet has been a big part of Johnson’s weight loss program. He’s eating out less and eating more home-cooked meals.

Just ask Johnson if the “Heat culture” is a real thing and he’ll give you a testimonial that’s stronger than most of the ones you hear in weight-loss program commercials.

“It’s super real,” Johnson said. “This culture is real. Not only that, you know the kind of practices we have. We have those kind of practices where you can’t go out and hang out all night and think you’re going to be able to come to practice and really go hard because I’ll call you out, everybody on this team will call you out. We won’t leave it to the coaches to call you out. We take care of that ourselves. That’s the inside of this locker room.”

Now, Johnson doesn’t have to look through the Heat’s iPad for weight-loss success stories. His own incredible before-and-after photo was sitting at his locker before Wednesday’s home win over the 76ers.

“One of my most happiest moments,” Johnson said, looking back at when he first saw the photo.

“I even had to call my old lady and say, ‘Yo, I’m sorry you had to be with this guy. I didn’t know it was that bad.’ She was at the pool with me and I’m thinking I’m good. But they were really just staring at her the whole time, I guess. It’s just good motivation and it’s a good reminder not to go back.”

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