Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics

An NBA player celebrating a birthday isn’t exactly a story, but if there’s one Raptor whose birthday is worth writing about, it’s probably Amir Johnson, who turned 26 years young last week. Amir has been heralded as a “young veteran” given the fact that as the last high schooler drafted into the NBA, he’s already played eight seasons at that tender age of just 26.

To put that in perspective, he’s only 10 months older than Stephen Curry.

After a disappointing 2011-12 season that saw Johnson battle personal issues off the court and frustrating inconsistency on it, I talked about the fact that Amir might be another bad season away from hearing his name pop up in amnesty discussions. Well he made sure that wouldn’t be an issue, as the fan favourite turned in the most productive, consistent year of his career in 2012-13.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the notion that Amir Johnson was the most valuable Raptor this season and may very well be the team’s best player right now. And looking at things from that perspective, the $13.5 million remaining on his contract over the next two years seems like a bargain.

While his basic statistics of 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game are decent, it’s the advanced stats that are indicative of the continued growth in Johnson’s game. If you look at power forwards who played at least 40 games and logged at least 15 minutes this year, Amir ranked in the top-five in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, top-10 in offensive rebound rate and top-15 in Alternate Player Efficiency Rating (APER is Hoopdata’s more in depth version of PER). Heck, he finished with a top-20 offensive rating league wide, not limited to power forwards or even big men in general.

Committing fouls is still an issue for Amir, as his 301 personals led the NBA and his 3.7 per game average was second only to Dwight Howard’s 3.8. On the flip side though, Johnson’s fouls per minutes played rate went down for the fourth straight season and his propensity to pick up fouls is no longer a real threat to his minutes, as he logged a career high 28.7 minutes per game in 81 games this season, with his 2325 total minutes played in 2012-13 dwarfing his previous career high of 1853.

In addition, while giving up fouls and subsequent free throws can contribute negatively towards a team’s defence, Amir remains the Raptors’ defensive anchor and the most positive influence on the team’s success. His total plus/minus of +213 was far and away the best mark on the team, as of the 11 players that played at least 1000 minutes for Toronto this season, the next best plus/minus belonged to Rudy Gay…at +56 (Amir’s net rating per 48 minutes of +4.4 was nearly double that of Gay’s +2.3).

The next step for Amir will be to remain consistent and continue adding to his game while taking his minutes to over 30 and beyond, which he did plenty of times already in 2012-13 while playing through various nagging ailments.

While Jonas Valanciunas remains the beacon of hope going forward, the best story of the Raptors’ frustrating 2012-13 campaign was Johnson emerging as a legitimate starting quality NBA big man. Now the question is, can he be a legitimate starting big man on a quality team?

There are surely plenty of people who may laugh at the very thought of that, but not me. If there’s one thing I learned in 2012-13, it’s not to doubt Amir Johnson.

I suggest you follow suit.