The Case for James Johnson

We came into this unpredictable lockout-shortened season with the expectation that this Raptors team would lose a lot of basketball games, but would hopefully see development in their young “core” players that are supposed to form the building blocks of the franchise’s future.

Coming in, everyone was looking at DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis as the barometers for how successful this season of development would be. While it’s unfair to simply say DeRozan has taken a step back since he is learning to play with defences cluing in on him (as Alvin Williams talked about in our RaptorBlog Radio interview with him), it’s also more than a stretch to say he has taken a step forward.

Ed Davis has been less impressive to me this season than he was as a rookie who missed a chunk of the year last season. Combine the 9-23 record with major question marks still surrounding DeRozan and Davis, and you might think the season of development has been a failure.

But that would be unfair. It would be unfair to the culture change Dwane Casey has begun to implement North of the 49th. It would be unfair to a guy like Andrea Bargnani, who despite his nagging calf injury, showed us he might just achieve star status in the NBA sooner rather than later.

And it would definitely be unfair to perhaps the most pleasantly surprising member of the team through 32 games, and that’s James Johnson.

When Bryan Colangelo traded what turned out to be a very late first round pick for Johnson a year ago Wednesday, I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly excited. Johnson came to Toronto and impressed me with his balanced play, as I’m sure he did all Raptors fans, but I don’t think many people were sold on him as a part of the precious “core” just yet.

Fast forward to February of 2012, and not only are fans ready to accept James as a core member of the future, but Dwane Casey seems ready as well. In a recent Toronto Sun article by Mike Ganter, Casey is quoted as saying Johnson “is close” to becoming a part of that core, adding “He’s getting there. He has developed more trust.

The trust Johnson has earned in Toronto is evident in the numbers. He played around 11 minutes per game in 78 appearances (11 starts) with the Bulls, taking about three shots per game. In 56 appearances with the Raptors (43 starts), Johnson has averaged around 26 minutes per game and is taking about eight shots.

His actual statistics have seen improvement as well, jumping from 3.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in Chicago to 8.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and over a steal per game in Toronto.

What I’ve really liked about Johnson’s game this season is the development of his offence. He seems to be growing from a player that could dunk but couldn’t hit a jump-shot to a player who can do some damage with an improved post game, a guy who will still attack the basket at will and whose jumper is becoming at least respectable. In fact, since January 20 (a 17-game span), Johnson is averaging over 10 points per game while shooting nearly 47 per cent.

The biggest knock on his offensive game outside of poor shooting was his propensity to turn the ball over, and yet that’s another area where James has dramatically improved, lowering his turnover percentage from 17.7 as a rookie to 15.2 last season to 11.2 this season.

It’s nice to see a guy earn his minutes with defensive hustle (as evidenced by Johnson’s many chase down blocks), and then slowly develop his offensive game for a change, rather than see guys earn minutes with instant offence without being able to contribute on the defensive side of the ball.

While I’d like to see him become a bit more disciplined in knowing when to jump for a block and when to stay planted, there is no question that defence is the strength of James Johnson’s game. He can guard multiple positions, always seems to contest shots and blocks a lot of shots for his size and position (Johnson leads the league in blocks for a non big man).

Perhaps most impressive of all, Johnson is one of only three players in the NBA this season to rank in the top-30 in both blocks and steals. The other two names on that list are Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.

Johnson turns 25-years-old today, and his youth and relative inexperience in the NBA make him a prime candidate to continue to grow and develop over the next couple of years. When you look at his defensive numbers and the players that compare, there is reason to believe that he can be one of the better defenders in the NBA, which seems like a perfect fit for a Dwane Casey coached team.

James will be a relatively cheap option for the Raptors over the next couple of seasons considering he has turned himself into a legitimate rotation player. If he can continue to develop a respectable offensive game while still making an impact on the defensive end, then I don’t see any reason to exclude him from the “core” talk.

For once, a young Raptors player has worked himself into that status instead of just walking into it.

Comments (11)

  1. I think, aside from hiring Dwane Casey as head coach for the Raptors, this was probably one of his best moves as GM of Toronto.

  2. Did you know: James Johnson is the only player in the top 10 of block AND steal percentage? That’s kind of awesome. I wrote a bit on him here, actually: http://worldthroughsports.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/on-badasses/

  3. Derozan and Ed Davis have flopped big time this year. And for you to say that if andrea didn’t get injured he would’ve been an all star “sooner rather than later” that statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt because he has been in the league 5 years, if he was going to be a star he would’ve been one by now. Yes James johnson has been possibly the only bright spot on the year for the raps but that’s not enough to cover up the fact that the raptors have nobody that can carry the team, the future looks just as bleak as it did at last year and the year before that. It’s sad that when we talk about the “glory days” of this franchise, we talk about them making the second round of the playoffs.

    • Andrea was really good so far this year and he will return. Looking at the record with him in versus with him out it shows he can actually carry this team. I was and still am very skeptical of BC’s pick of him over Alderidge, however with that being said I honestly believe that with Jonas stepping across the pond next year, and with the continuation of Demar actually playing well/Ed playing more consistently, we have more pieces than the bobcats and a lot of other rebuilding teams as well as we have a very bright future going forward looking into the crystal ball 2 years from now.

      • when talking of the teams record ‘with and without’ Bargnani why does no one seem to want to take into consideration the quality of their competition? The Raps beat 1 .500 team with Bargnani – the Utah Jazz (who are, suprise, no longer .500). The other wins came agains the Cavs twice, Phoenix, NY (pre-Lin no less), and Minnesota. Included in there are losses to Washington, NJ and sacramento.

        Since he was out the Raps also faced their toughest stretch of games, and have only played 5 sub 500 teams in 19 games… including 3 of the 4 top teams in the league right now (Miami, Chi, SA).

        Yes the Raps have played better offensively with Bargnani, but he is not carrying anything. The team has been trying to sell this ‘we’d make the playoffs with Bargnani’ nonesense…. Devlin makes sure he says it atleast once a game.

        • Agree. I don’t know why people have the common belief that this is a playoff team with Bargnani. This team isn’t even a .500 regular season team if they had him the entire year. With that belief, this should have been a championship contendor with Bosh, am I right?

          I don’t believe he’s capable of being the number one guy for a team. Maybe, Valanciunas will be exactly what the Raptors need defensively. But even if he was playing in TO this year, I don’t think they’re close to a playoff team.

          What I’m hoping for is that Colangelo uses this year’s pick wisely. They should be able to get a top 5 pick, and should use it on SF’s Harrison Barnes or Kidd-Gilchrist. But with how both have been playing for their school’s, they could go #2 and #3 behind Davis.

          • what about a point guard???

            mind you if we keep jose and develop bayless it would be the best choice

          • It’s not ‘We’d be a playoff team with Bargnani’. It’s more about the fact that with him in the line-up, we would be in the running to get into the playoffs. Personally, I would much rather be real bad and get a high draft pick, than a mediocre team with no lottery pick and no chance at making some noise in the playoffs. But with the way this team has played, you can’t say that you aren’t at least a bit surprised..especially considering the fact that we’ve filled out our roster with useless veterans (carter, butler, magloire and gray).

            Some of you raptor fans that claim we are worse than the bobcats and all this nonsense need to chill. Yes, the franchise hasn’t had much success lately, but we’re not the Chicago Cubs of the NBA..yet, anyway.

  4. Too much time riding the pine in chicago nearly wrecked this guy, nice to see him get the minutes needed to develop.

  5. JJ is the only current Raptor that reads and anticipates whats happening. Hi blocks are almost always help blocks and his steals are on other players he is not defending.

    @JD. “It’s sad that when we talk about the “glory days” of this franchise, we talk about them making the second round of the playoffs.”
    -Remember this is Toronto. We hang players in the rafters that have accomplished not much more: Sundin,Clark, Gilmour. Our expectations as a city are so low, we celebrate anything.

    And the Leaf mentality of “Just get into the playoffs. Anything could happen!” has bled over to the Raptors.

    I love JJ’s hustle. But really, it’s time to get a player that does more than “fight in the corners”.

  6. I’ve been a fan of JJ ever since we got him from Chicago. Glad to see he’s been putting together a solid offensive game in the last few weeks, and more importantly, turning the ball over a lot less frequently.

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