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When Raptors President/GM Bryan Colangelo re-signed Amir Johnson to a five-year contract in July after a 2009-10 season in which he averaged 17.7 minutes, 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, a number of critics proclaimed that the reported $34 million deal was a gross overpayment for a guy who many people perceive as a career backup. Here was ESPN commentator Bill Simmons’ take:

“Colangelo had a choice between paying (Michael) Beasley $11 million for two years (with a qualifying offer of $8.1 million in 2012-13) or signing Amir Johnson for $34 million for five years … and chose Johnson!? Did he suffer a head injury right before the 2006 draft and not tell us?”

Shortly after the signing, we learned that Johnson’s contract was actually for $30 million over five years — but that hardly made a difference to people who think that $6 million per season (he’s actually making $5 million this season but his salary escalates by $500,000 each season thereafter) is too much for a guy that hadn’t averaged over 20 minutes per game in any of his five NBA seasons. And if that was all Johnson was ever going to be — a role player that couldn’t play starter’s minutes because of his penchant for foul trouble — those critics would have a good point.

One could hardly fault Simmons or anyone else outside of the miserable fans who actually watch every Raptors game if they haven’t noticed that Johnson has evolved into something more than just an expendable role player this season. In fact, you could make the case that he’s been the Raptors’ best player in 2011 — and that’s the camp I’m in.

Full disclosure: I’ve been an Amir Johnson fan since his days as a raw teenager languishing on the Detroit Pistons’ bench. He didn’t get a lot of playing time on that deep squad, but his potential was evident when he was given a chance to shine.

He’s long, athletic, energetic, he rebounds and blocks shots — what’s not to like? Well, his tendency to commit stupid fouls, that’s what. In each of his last three seasons, he averaged over six fouls per 36 minutes — which is going to limit your playing time no matter how good you are.

In the first two months of this season, Johnson continued to commit fouls at an alarming rate — if he couldn’t figure out how to stay out of foul trouble going into his sixth NBA season, it seemed like it was probably never going to happen. But something has clicked with Amir in 2011 — in his last 18 games, he’s averaging 30 minutes, 12.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and a block per game while shooting an incredible 64.4 percent from the field and an impressive 80.9 percent from the free throw line.

As I’ve believed for years, Amir Johnson is proving that he’s a valuable player who can make positive contributions on both ends of the court if he can manage to stay out there. There are just three NBA forwards under the age of 25 who are averaging at least 12 points and seven rebounds per game this season: Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Andray Blatche. Obviously, Johnson isn’t on Griffin’s or Love’s level, but I’ll gladly keep Johnson over Blatche with his 42.2 percent shooting and non-existent defence.

Even though he’s in his sixth NBA season, Johnson is still just 23 years old and he’s shown this season that he can learn some new tricks — he improved his free throw shooting from 63.8 percent in 2009-10 to 80 percent this season and he’s maintained his ridiculously high field goal percentage even though he now takes a couple of 18-foot jumpshots per game. It’s obvious that he’s taking the necessary steps to try to become a complete player instead of just an athletic hustle player who mostly scores off alley-oops and putbacks.

This brings us back to his supposedly ridiculous contract. Does around $6 million per season seem reasonable to you for a six-foot-11 player who averages 12 points and seven rebounds per game and makes over 60 percent of his field goal attempts and 80 percent of his free throws? Because it appears that’s exactly the player we have in Amir Johnson, and at his age there’s no telling what his true ceiling is.

Overall, these are pretty dark times for the Toronto Raptors — it has to be tough to keep your head up in the midst of a 13-game losing streak. If this @IamAmirJohnson tweet from yesterday is any indication, Johnson is going to keep on trying to do whatever it takes to give Raptors fans something to cheer about again.

Comments (5)

  1. I hope health does not become a problem, it’s pretty evident if you are at a game that he is playing with pain. I’ve only been to one game in person, which was a few weeks ago, but he definitely had that “Oh god, not again” look a couple of times when he needed to run from one end to the other.

  2. Amir’s ceiling is probably something similar to the early years of Horace Grant, who was a key glue guy on many upper echelon teams. Amir isn’t going to suddenly become a high usage offensive threat, but if he can get a little bit stronger, consistently knock down open 10 – 15 footers, and keep the fouls down while staying aggressive and , he can be a starting caliber PF on any team the league. Anything more is really a bonus and would make him a borderline allstar.

  3. Jim: Horace Grant is an interesting comparison, and a pretty good one. Horace’s best season was in 1991-92 on the Bulls squad that won a second straight title. Here were his stats in that season: 14.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG, .578 FG%. Don’t those look like upper-level Amir numbers?

  4. It’s only a matter of time before people really start to appreciate how fortunate Toronto is to have Amir locked up. It’s equally exciting to know we have another talented blue collar up and comer in Ed Davis right behind him in the rotation. I firmly believe that they are championship team type players, and will be great components once we draft a true leader.

    Great article, Scott. It’s refreshing to know that we have at least one member of the Toronto sports media who looks beyond PPG and will tell it like it is.

  5. Players who play this hard every game are the ones we need to keep around. Hopefully other raptors can catch on

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