James Johnson

You probably already know by now that the Raptors traded their late first round pick from Miami to the Chicago Bulls for seldom-used sophomore forward James Johnson yesterday. Since Johnson has only played 880 NBA minutes and only 23 of those minutes were against the Raptors, it’s likely that many of you don’t know a lot about him. To be honest, the first thing that popped to mind when I learned that the Raptors acquired him was, “Isn’t that the mixed martial arts guy?”

Johnson has indeed competed in kickboxing and MMA events, but he currently gets paid to play professional basketball. After an inauspicious rookie season with the Bulls where he averaged 11.6 minutes, 3.9 points and 2.0 rebounds per game, he fell to the bottom of the Bulls’ depth chart this season and he’s only played 123 minutes so far. It would be an understatement to say that’s rather disappointing for a player selected 16th overall in the 2009 draft.

I haven’t seen enough of Johnson to form much of an opinion on him (although his career Player Efficiency Rating of 10.2 doesn’t inspire much confidence) so I asked Matt (@BullsBlogger) from Blog-a-Bull to give me a one-paragraph scouting report. Generously, he gave me four:

James Johnson never really got the same sentimental underdog feeling from me or other Bulls fans like some first rounders past that were in similar fights for minutes. Maybe it’s because the other member of his rookie class, Taj Gibson, was drafted later but immediately paid dividends. It’s more likely that it was because unlike someone like Tyrus Thomas, who despite inconsistency actually produced in the limited time he received, J.J. never really did enough to warrant fan-pining for more time.

(J.J. is a pretty lame nickname, but acceptable shorthand. I became particularly fond of the BaB commenter-suggested “Jimmy Johns” (Do Canadians know what that is?). He’s also known for his martial arts and kickboxing skills: his father was a professional fighter and he has some achievements in that realm himself, automatically putting him in the top .05% of NBA players, who are usually surprisingly slap-happy when it gets down to fighting…)

The problem with Johnson in Chicago is that the Bulls’ team situation required him to fit in as a role player and he did not have the refinement in his game to do so. He was able to create, attack, and draw fouls but also commit turnovers. He was big for a small forward but not able to go inside, and undersized for a power forward. A nice shot, but not dependable enough from three-point land. An active and disruptive defender, but prone to fouling. There is a lot of talent there, but he needs substantial minutes (and trust to play through mistakes) to figure out what he should and shouldn’t do. Maybe that can happen on a (ahem) “developing” team like the Raptors.

From all accounts, he was regarded as a good teammate and a hard worker, though he has had issues with conditioning which may speak less to the latter. But his is a tough way to find your way in the NBA: good enough in many different aspects to want to be a jack-of-all-trades, but not great enough in any one thing to make up for the mistakes that come with it. It’s enough to dominate the D-League (as he did last month) but unless you’re a budding star it’s not typically what you want out of a player. He doesn’t seem ready yet to be molded into a specialist, but I still could see him becoming a volatile but useful high-usage bench option. He just turned 24 so he’s running out of time to figure out what he can excel in.

Regarding Johnson’s D-League stint, he played eight games for the Iowa Energy recently and averaged 32.1 minutes, 19.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.5 blocks and shot 53 percent from the field. Impressive numbers, certainly. But let’s keep in mind that our own Trey Johnson was the D-League’s leading scorer before the Raptors called him up — grains of salt, and all that.

No matter what happens to James Johnson’s NBA career from here on out, he can probably already lay claim to one title — he’s quite likely the best professional basketball player to ever come out of the great state of Wyoming. Cheyenne, stand up!