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.