It was a different James Johnson who was introduced to the Toronto media in his second turn at playing for the Raptors. A more mature young man who has learned from his mistakes and truly values the opportunity he has been given.
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“It was a crazy road for me, but I’ve learned a lot – a lot from my mistakes,” Johnson said. “I feel like Masai (Ujiri) and the rest of the Toronto Raptors, they felt the same way about the situation and the same way about my play and what I could bring to the team. I still have a lot to prove, but them signing me for two years gave me a boost of confidence and I am going to work my hardest to help us go further than we did last year.”
Johnson showed he had the talent to help a team in his first go-around with Toronto and Head Coach Dwane Casey, but that was on a losing team and after being handed the starting job, Johnson got in his own way towards the end. This time the situation is different and Johnson knows his role will be to fit in on a team that expects to win.
“(The Raptors) already went to the playoffs. They had a successful end of the year and you don’t want to mess that up,” Johnson said. “I have teammates that know what I can do and know I can help, know I can blend in with the team well, gel with the team and they don’t have to worry about no problems with that and all I want to do is win. I am all about winning and I feel these guys know that.”
Johnson got the nod from his friend DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry was approached and brought on board before Johnson was signed. This Raptors team expects any player that joins them to live up to the standards of the four players they acquired from Sacramento last year. The Raptors want guys who will play their role and put winning ahead of personal gain. Johnson appears ready to play that role.
“I am just more mature about my game,” Johnson said. “Doing the little things, finding my niche, just getting opportunities to score when I can and if not, don’t worry about the offensive end.”
Two years ago, Johnson put himself in Casey’s doghouse, but Coach Casey has shown he can work with young players. If Johnson can put it behind him and acknowledge his past mistakes, the past is past. Casey didn’t stop playing Johnson in 2012, he just sent him a message about who runs the team and determines players’ roles.
“It never was bad,” Johnson said. “We had our bumps, but it’s a war when we are out there playing a game and sometimes you say stuff you can regret or you say stuff you don’t really mean and Dwane Casey is a great guy and I feel like he realizes that and we’ve moved forward from (there). We had a great conversation and I am just ready to win and I know he is.”
For Johnson and the Raptors, the best part about re-acquiring this athletic forward is he already knows the role Casey wants him to play and the style and terminology Casey is going to use. Johnson should mesh into the Raptors rotation quickly and easily.
“Just playing defense, being an opportunity scorer and just doing the little things, everyday practice hard and just try to get our guys to the next level playing team defense,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if (Casey) is trying to do anything different (than before). I felt like the guys that were here, they have been here for a while, so they are finally starting to catch on and it’s become second nature. They are not thinking about where they have to be on defense anymore from when Dwane Casey first got here. It was new to all of us, his defensive schemes. I went to Memphis and it was the same kind of defense and I see these guys, their mind is into the defense out here in Toronto and guys are where they need to be.”
As much as Johnson will have a defensive role, Casey is into have versatile players that can do more than just one thing at one end of the court. Johnson sees himself as an all-around player and that is what he needs to be.
“I define myself as an all-around basketball player,” Johnson said. “Not a defensive player, not an offensive player. I play the game how it’s supposed to be played and that is how I want to be labeled – a basketball player. I am stepping up to the challenge. If there is a guy that Coach needs me to lockdown, I am not worried about getting buckets when you have an All-Star like DeMar DeRozan and you got guys that can shoot the three-ball as well as Kyle Lowry.”
Johnson is defining the standard to which he will be held. All that natural talent will mean little to Casey if Johnson doesn’t follow his own advice. However, at 27-years-old and on his third NBA contact, Johnson has figured out what is expected and it mostly comes down to hard work and being accountable for what he does.
“They know I am going to work hard,” Johnson said. “They know I am going to hold people accountable. I expect the same from DeMar, I expect the same from Kyle to hold me accountable, Patrick (Patterson), (Greivis) Vasquez to hold me accountable for things I am doing wrong on the court as well and I think that when you can hold someone accountable and you guys can talk it out as a team and fix it instead of arguing I think you go a long way.”
Perhaps there really is nothing like the school of hard knocks to help a young man mature. Not getting picked up after his rookie deal expired, time in the NBA D-League and losing his playing time to veterans on the Grizzlies after playing well earlier in the season last year have probably set the stage for how Johnson will be as a player from now on.
“I came from the D-League and had to play a major role with Memphis and after my role was accomplished and over with and they had their guys all healthy they kept playing them,” Johnson said. “I want to win and I am going to be cheering for my team and there is going to be no faking when I stand up clapping for my guys and they are going to know that.”
After Johnson finished with the media, he was off to sign that brand new two year deal with the Raptors and riding the elevator part way down with him, it’s hard to remember anyone looking happier and more relieved. Johnson looked like someone who truly appreciated his opportunity to get back in the league.
Patrick Patterson Says Raptors Gave Him Confidence
Patterson gives Casey a lot of the credit for helping him to improve over the season. “(Casey) was one of the key reasons for us having such great success,” Patterson said. “His ability to teach and make us get better out there on the court.”