Amir at the Five?

First things first. No recap of last night’s 81-73 loss to the Celtics. I couldn’t find an online feed with even decent quality, and when I did see a few clear minutes of action, it was basically clanked jumper, clanked jumper, turnover, jumper. I don’t think you missed much. A stat that really stands out after the two pre-season games between the Raptors and Celtics is field goal percentage: the two teams combined to shoot 107-of-287, or slightly over 37 per cent. Yikes. Let’s hope teams can shake off the rust by this Christmas weekend.

Now on to this post…

I’ve mentioned several times in the last week or so that Dwane Casey has stated he wants to have Andrea Bargnani and Ed Davis play as many minutes as possible at their natural power forward positions rather than be forced to play centre. Most of us are in agreement that Bargnani is a four, and Davis’ development could be stumped by playing out of position at the five.

The problem though, is that the only three true centres on the roster are 33-year-old, over-the-hill Jamaal Magloire, perennial bench player Aaron Gray and sophomore Solomon Alabi, who has played a grand total of 59 minutes in the NBA (87 minutes if you include a few pre-season games). So, if the plan is to play a true centre beside Bargnani or Davis, Casey’s options are beyond limited.

He could head into the regular season playing things the way he did in the pre-season, starting either Magloire or Gray at centre just to get things started, without actually compromising Bargnani, Davis or Amir Johnson’s minutes, or he could give Amir Johnson a chance. Casey has said that Amir can definitely play centre in his defensive system, so why not start him?

I realize that Johnson is far from a natural centre and at 6-9, 210 pounds, might be over-matched in the size department. But while Davis is still in the tender stages of his development and Bargnani has proven incapable of manning the middle, Amir is at the point where he’s been there, done that.

Sure, he’s only 24, and still has time to grow as a player (not physically), but he’s heading into his seventh season in the NBA. In many ways, he’s an “old” 24. He’s practically a vet. Between Bargnani and Davis, there won’t be many minutes available at the four, but Amir has proven his worth to the team over the last couple of years, and deserves the chance to log as many minutes as possible, especially in a season that everyone knows is about development and growth.

Amir started 54 out of the 72 games he played last season, and averaged almost 10 points, six rebounds and a block in under 26 minutes on the floor. He’s incredibly efficient on the offensive end, often flirting with a 60 per cent field goal efficiency, and he’s extended his range over the last year or so. He’s also become a pretty reliable free throw shooter, and has more than enough energy and athleticism to become an outstanding defensive player.

You could start Magloire or Gray at the five, and give Amir 20-25 minutes, or you could start Amir, let him work through his foul troubles and play 25-to-30-plus minutes, while using Magloire, Gray and Alabi in short bursts to keep Bargs, Davis and Amir fresh.

Given the fact that Amir is coming off of ankle surgery and the team doesn’t and shouldn’t force too much on him too quickly, he may not be the best candidate to start right away. But if he shows he is healthy and fully recovered from surgery, and shows his usual hunger and hustle, then I’ll bet Amir Johnson will be starting beside Bargnani or Davis sooner rather than later.

Dwane Casey is a coach that has stressed players will earn their minutes and play their way into individual roles within the team, and I believe he means it.

For a young workhorse like Amir Johnson, who still has some untapped potential in him, that should only be good news.

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