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NBA Toronto Raptors Bismack Biyombo and DeMar DeRozan

Six Things The Toronto Raptors Should Do This Summer 2016

The Toronto Raptors stated goal three years ago was to become relevant this past season. Mission accomplished. Now the goal is to build on their Eastern Conference Finals appearance and president and general manager Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him. There are things he should do and things he must do if his team is to be better than the 56-win 2015-16 version.

Ujiri has already completed one of his top priorities by getting head coach Dwane Casey’s name inked to an extension, but as both parties were anxious to get something done, this didn’t come as a surprise.

“I think that’s very easy for us to figure out, that’ll be done in our sleep, I think,” Ujiri said shortly before the contract extension was announced.

When it comes to adding players, however, the summer of 2016 will not be like last year. This time Ujiri isn’t working with an abundance of salary cap room, counting first round draft picks and salary cap holds, he is basically working with no space at all. It’ll take every trick in the book to get what should be done accomplished this time.

1. Continuity

Ujiri signed up for the first stage in continuity by re-upping Casey, but there is more to it than that.

Continuity has played a big part in the Raptors success. Giving Casey the reins with a consistent message of defense first helps to keep this team focused beyond the court – in the draft, in free agency and with trades. Ujiri believes in acquiring players that fit with his head coach, players who will go with the program and accept the roles assigned to them. This team should – nay must – continue down the same path this summer.

Whomever Ujiri decides to add to this roster, they need to be a fit with Casey’s program.

2. The Draft – Up or Out

The Raptors hold the 9th and 27th picks in the 2016 NBA Draft and as Ujiri said at the end of the season, this team doesn’t need to add any more players that aren’t ready to help the team right away. He needs to make a move.

“I don’t know if it’s a draft where we can get somebody that will come and impact our team right away,” Ujiri said two days before the draft.

He’s right of course and Ujiri’s admitted they are talking to other teams about trading one or both of their draft picks. While it might not be possible to fully complete a trade at the draft if players under contract are involved, the Raptors should be looking to trade up or out of this draft.

It’s been reported that the Celtics, Suns, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Kings are all trying to trade their (better) lottery picks, so trading up and getting a player Casey could use in his rotation off the bench is a real possibility.

The Raptors need a high potential forward that Casey can develop in the NBA (as opposed to the D-League). Ujiri should be trying to move up to get Washington power forward Marquese Chriss or California forward Jaylen Brown.

3. Bring Back Bismack Biyombo

Bismack Biyombo was a free agent steal last summer, but like all good things, eventually you got to pay up to keep them. Biyombo, backing up Jonas Valanciunas, gave the Raptors two players who were dominant on the glass and made it possible for Toronto to win the battle of the boards most nights. Biyombo also covered for Valanciunas when the Raptors starting center was injured and the team just kept on winning.

There have been some crazy numbers thrown around about how much Biyombo will be able to command in free agency, as high as $17-20 million, but for a player with very limited offensive skills, that’s too high even this summer. However, he will command a salary north of $10 million per season even with the promised hometown discount to stay with his mentor – the Raptors GM Ujiri.

Biyombo says Ujiri told him he’d find a way to bring him back and anyone who follows the team should know if Ujiri says he’ll do something, it happens. The price will be a player or players that will have to be traded to create the salary cap space necessary.

4. Bring Back DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan says he’s coming back and the salary cap math says Ujiri has little choice but to make it happen as Toronto won’t have the room to go after anyone better. It may cause some fans to gag on paying DeRozan as much as $26.6 million per season, but his salary cap hold is just over $15 million, so with the right timing, Ujiri can do what he needs to elsewhere as long as DeRozan is last to ink a contract.

The longest serving Raptor in the organization, DeRozan is a huge part of the continuity that has created the current run of success and as the second leading scorer in the Eastern Conference, it isn’t a stretch to say DeRozan has earned a max deal. Besides, no one should be even slightly surprised if DeRozan leaves a little money on the table to re-sign with Toronto. He wants to be there and that’s important in a city that has struggled to hang onto it’s All-Stars in the past.

5. Be Willing To Let Go

Ujiri is loath to let any young player he’s developing escape, but with salary cap restrictions and an NBA roster size capped at 15 players, eventually push comes to shove and decisions have to be made.

Between Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright and Norman Powell, only Powell cracked Casey’s rotation last season and he earned it. Powell’s style of play and skill-set fits with his head coach. The other guys may develop, but on a team looking to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals, that’s too many guys you really don’t know if they’ll be ready to help if needed.

If the Raptors end up drafting a player, then one of Caboclo, Nogueira or Wright need to be moved out. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to move out one just to create room to add another veteran.

It’s time to re-evaluate Terrence Ross’ future with the Raptors. Ujiri signed him to a modest (under a $94 million salary cap) extension last summer starting at $10 million per season in July, so in a league looking for long range shooting, this career 38 percent three-point threat isn’t overpaid. However, he may have just lost most of his minutes to Powell next season.

Ross is an obvious trade candidate to create the salary cap space needed to retain Biyombo or as an attractive chip in a bigger deal. If only Ujiri can let him go.

6. Bring Back James Johnson

James Johnson has his supporters in the Raptors fanbase and when DeMarre Carroll was injured (twice), Johnson filled in and helped keep the 56-win season on track.

The 29-year-old combo forward has never been as good as he thinks he is and as a result, he brought a history of conflict with coaches past and present, but he’s matured and accepted his role in his latest (second) stint in Toronto.

Ujiri will likely have to rescind his rights early in the process as the Raptors work at completing more important deals, but bringing back Johnson with one of the minor exceptions or even a veteran’s minimum contract would likely pay dividends for the Raptors next season.

Guys get hurt, Johnson is versatile and stays ready to play. Every good team that goes deep in the playoffs needs guys like him on their bench and Johnson is a known quantity.

This summer is not like the summer of 2015. The Raptors are coming off a successful playoff run that didn’t include all of their best players firing on all cylinders. A healthy version of last year’s team should be noticeably better in 2016-17.

Continuity is the key, so retaining Biyombo and DeRozan should be the top priority. This team was second in the Eastern Conference and lost in six games in the Conference Finals with a banged up Carroll, Valanciunas and Lowry. Imagine what they could accomplish if they can get to next April with everyone back and healthy?

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

Cory Joseph scrum 2015Six Things The Toronto Raptors Should Do This Summer 2015

The NBA All-Star Game is coming to Toronto in February and the Raptors want to be taken seriously – perhaps for the first time in franchise history.

 

 


NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson shooting by Paul Saini FYLMM

James Johnson Is Leading The Raptors Against The Cavs

The Toronto Raptors went into Cleveland for the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs and just like in the regular season, they were easily blown out on the road against the best in the East. In a surprising turn of events, it’s been the infrequently used veteran James Johnson who has far and away the best plus/minus stat of head coach Dwane Casey’s rotation players in this series, leading the Raptors with a -6.5 points in 19.5 minutes per game.

DeMar DeRozan (-16.5 points) leads Toronto in scoring with 20 points per game on 48.6 percent shooting from the field, but it’s Johnson in second at 10.5 points on 69.2 percent shooting and 75 percent from the three-point line. Kyle Lowry (-11.5) misplaced his jump shot again as he’s just 1-15 from deep, but he does lead the Raptors on the glass with 5 rebounds per game – not that leading his team in rebounding is a good thing. Bismack Biyombo, where are you?

The good news for the Raptors is they are returning home for Games Three and Four. Home sweet home is where Toronto took two close games from the Cavaliers during the regular season.

“We are going home,” Johnson said after Game Two. “We got to play well at home. That’s the end of it. They did what they had to do protect home court and now we got to go home and protect ours.”

There is a tendency to get ahead of oneself when a team seems to be establishing a trend and it would be very difficult for any team to recover from a 0-3 hole in a seven game series, but the Raptors haven’t lost to the Cavs at home yet this season and Johnson wasn’t having any of the negativity.

“We are not 3-0 yet though,” James said. “We are going to stick to our game. They are playing really great basketball right now. We are not playing our normal attack (of) gritty get to the line basketball and I think that’s going to change.”

Johnson has always been a solid one-on-one defender who only gets exposed badly at the defensive end when his man is playing off the ball. Putting Johnson on LeBron James is putting him in a position to succeed as virtually all of the Cavs offense runs through James. At the other end, Johnson is almost as big as James and can play almost as physical and when he’s hitting his jump shot, Johnson is a tough cover.

With James constantly complaining his way to a friendly whistle, the Raptors need both Johnson and DeMarre Carroll to soak up the fouls James is going to get the benefit of. Hopefully, Carroll can find his own three-point shot in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre so these two can average over 20 points combined in the next couple of games.

It’ll be two weeks since starting center Jonas Valanciunas turned an ankle, so there is a reasonable expectation he’ll be able to play one or both of the games at home. However, the Raptors will need a lot of other players to step up their game to hold off the surging Cavs and your backup small forward really shouldn’t be leading your team in any category.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini


NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson and Cory Joseph

Raptors Depth Of Talent Will Carry Them Past Indiana

This isn’t your Toronto Raptors roster of past seasons. It should be obvious with a team that won an impressive 56 games during the regular season, but somehow the depth of talent that carried them to all those wins this year hasn’t been filling the local fanbase with confidence as the Raptors return from Indiana tied at two games apiece in their best of seven opening round series.

The Raptors have depth. A veteran starting lineup averages 7.4 years of NBA experience. The five primary backups average 4.2 years and the 11th thru 13th man average 5.3 years in the league. Those deep reserves include James Johnson (7 years), Jason Thompson (8 years) and rookie Delon Wright . Having a couple of veterans as virtual injury reserve players with almost a 1,000 NBA games between them is a luxury not often seen in Toronto.

However, there are reasons to be concerned. All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan averaged 48 points per game against Indiana during the regular season, but in the playoffs, the Pacers have held them to 28.8 points. If Toronto didn’t have that depth of talent, this year’s playoffs would likely be resembling last year’s four game sweep at the hands of the Wizards right now.

Relegated to third string, fan favorite James Johnson is in the second year of his second stint with the Raptors under head coach Dwane Casey. With the perspective of a player fighting for minutes on a deep roster who has been on the team during the bad times and as it improved, Johnson provides a lot of insight as to why this team has been and will be successful.

“The chemistry here is different (now),” Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “It’s the same people almost, but everybody is buying in and everybody just wants to win.

“I think you can look at our team and realize that when DeMar and Kyle sit out, either one of them is out their cheering us. It’s just a different atmosphere, a different feeling. They are up there cheering for you and that (goes) for everybody and you don’t see that a lot (elsewhere).”

This team has a depth of veterans on the bench they didn’t have before. Johnson can lay claim to helping keep the Raptors on track during the heart of the regular season as DeMarre Carroll went through foot and knee problems and added to that is a couple of older rookies in Delon Wright and Norman Powell who have shown they can contribute as well.

“I don’t think it’s just vets,” Johnson said. “Norman Powell is doing a really good job as well, really, really buying in and working hard, getting opportunity and taking full advantage of it. You see a guy like Kyle take a well needed rest and you see Delon Wright come in and handle business as well. I don’t think it’s just the vets, it’s everybody here.

“Everybody is making each other better and that’s an everyday thing.”

Powell took Johnson’s minutes away from him in the last six weeks of the regular season when Johnson had his own foot problems and Powell has kept those minutes through the first four games of the playoffs. For Johnson to specifically point out how hard Powell is working illustrates the chemistry on this team.

Only a player whose has been with this group before, was gone for two seasons and returned to ride the wave over the past couple of years would have the perspective to really see the changes with the Raptors. Johnson supports Casey’s never ending talk about this being a team in progress.

“I am not just saying this, but this year has been the most I’ve ever seen people either come in in the morning, shoot and get a lot of shots up before practice and the most I’ve ever seen guys stay after practice and get a lot of shots up. I think everybody here wants to get better. They are not satisfied with where they are at, but at the same time, they buy into the role they play.”

That’s the biggest issue with depth of talent. There just isn’t enough minutes to go around and some guys who are good enough to play productive minutes in this league – like Johnson – are going to find themselves nailed to the bench until they are needed. Accepting a role and being ready to go when called upon has been a big part of this team’s success.

Unfortunately, success can breed complacency and what happened last April is a big part of the reason Toronto fans are nervous this time around. However, the Raptors know what happened and are going to fight to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

“I feel that we got complacent last year when we got more wins than we did the year before,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s the case this year. We won the Atlantic Division. We (already had) won that twice, three times now, so those goals are really set as high as they were in the past. This year that’s not going to stop us from doing what we’re doing, every good team does that kind of stuff.

“How far you get in the playoffs defines if you are a good team or not.”

These Raptors plan on defining themselves as a good team.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

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NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson With A Fresh Look For Spring

There should be no doubt, the Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson is is stylish guy and part of that is keeping his look fresh. He doesn’t just show up rocking the same look all the time.

Well, apparently it was time for another change. Here’s a look at James since he’s been back in Toronto.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

James Johnson on his return to the Raptors in 2014

When Johnson first returned to Toronto at the start of the 2014/15 season, he was displaying the scruffy stubble look, but by the next season he’d gone to the full on beard.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson at the start of the 2015/16 season

However, Johnson is constantly working on both his game and his look (the other game). It was time for something fresh.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson rockin’ a long goatee after the 2016 All-Star break

“Just changing it up,” Johnson told Pro Bball Report during some light postgame banter. “Different style, different everything. Whatever makes you feel good makes you play good.

“No big reason, cause I look good like this.

“Just keep it clean, keep it classy and try to keep the focus on basketball.”

The always stylish Johnson will get no argument from this corner, the goatee does look good on him.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson shooting by Paul Saini FYLMM

For Raptors James Johnson The Mad Scientist Approach Works

Raptors combo forward James Johnson knows his role in Toronto, but that hasn’t stopped him from working on his craft, even while he’s been starting in place of this year’s big free agent addition DeMarre Carroll. He knows that when Carroll comes back, his role will be greatly diminished, so Johnson has been working like a “Mad Scientist” to fix the biggest hole in his very diverse skill set and the approach seems to be working.

The combo forward that couldn’t shoot straight has been averaging 34.3 percent from three-point range this season, although prudence has kept him to hitting the long ball about once every three games. However, during the Raptors seven game home stand over the last two weeks of January, he’s been punishing defenses that have dared to him to shoot from beyond the arc. Johnson has hit on 46.2 percent of his three-balls over that span and he’s taking just under two attempts per game in 19 minutes of action.

“(I) come in here at nighttime, come here first, just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot til I find a rhythm,” Johnson explained to Pro Bball Report. “I finally recorded it. Told myself what to do like a mad scientist while I was feeling good. Told myself what I was feeling good about so I wouldn’t forget.”

For most of the season, it would have been hard to pick up on the fact Johnson was shooting better from range. He just didn’t shoot the long ball often enough to notice and it’s far easier to remember the bricks as that’s what everyone had come to expect when Johnson got brave enough to hoist from distance. However, his teammates have noticed. They are in the practice gym with him and can see the work Johnson’s been putting in.

“The guys are giving me opportunity to shoot and are trusting my shot and that’s a big key,” Johnson continued. “When your teammates are trusting your shot and passing you the ball when you are open in the corners or the wing, you feel some type of way about that.

“It feels good coming in at nighttime. I’m in the gym two hours, 2.5 hours, come down see Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan) in here, so they know I want it. They know how hard I work.

“Kyle knows I’ve been working on it. DeMar knows I’ve been working on it. The whole team really, so when I get that open opportunity, they give it to me. I know they know I’m going to make it, so it’s building that confidence and understanding that it feels good and shooting with confidence because if you don’t have confidence in your shot, no one else can have confidence in it.”

Johnson doesn’t play every game, he’s sat eight games already this season and when he plays, it’s often for short minutes. In 11 games he’s played less than 10 minutes, but when head coach Dwane Casey needs his versatile combo forward, he uses him and with Carroll missing about half the season so far, Johnson’s been needed more than expected.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson smiles by Paul Saini FYLMM

“Opportunities come in crazy times and you never want your minutes to come at another guys expense, but you have to stay ready because that’s the league,” Johnson said. “We still got guys that we haven’t really seen play yet that can do a lot of stuff I can do and who knows, but it was my opportunity and I answered.”

Johnson has answered big time for Casey. Toronto is 26-13 in games Johnson has played in and he’s stepped up in his 18 starts by contributing better than a block per game, 0.8 steals, 3.1 rebounds and 6.7 points in 22.1 minutes. It would be hard to see the Raptors season looking the same without Johnson available in Carroll’s absence.

However, Johnson’s role will not the the same when Carroll returns and this more mature version of Johnson, who is in his second stint with the Raptors under Casey, understands that. He has helped keep Toronto on a franchise record setting pace, but Carroll was brought in to take the Raptors past where they have made it in the past two postseasons.

“We have our set rotation,” Johnson acknowledged. “We’ve had that our whole year and I know where I land in that. It’s fine. It just gives me more time to work on my craft and develop as a better basketball player for the team just in case.”

It’s often said that players can develop a reliable jump shot as they get older, if they work at it and apparently the “Mad Scientist” approach is as good as any. Johnson will be 29-years-old in February and is in his seventh NBA season. He’s a veteran now and he’s playing and practicing like one and that three-point shot may appeared just in time for him and the Raptors.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

James Johnson Helps Keep The Raptors Afloat

The Toronto Raptors combo forward James Johnson has his supporters in Toronto and, if anything, they would like to see him have a bigger role. However, that was never in the cards. Johnson started the season as the fifth big man in a four-man rotation and his value as veteran forward who could play at the 3, 4 or 5 wasn’t going to be fully utilized unless their were injuries.

James Johnson looks left

Fortunately for head coach Dwane Casey, Johnson has stayed ready and the injuries to starters forward DeMarre Carroll and to a lesser extent center Jonas Valanciunas and wing Terrence Ross haven’t ruined the Raptors season. Johnson has played an important role in keeping his team’s prospects afloat while these key players were on the shelf.

James Johnson interview,

 

“I have a lot of people to thank for it,” Johnson explained. “It’s not just me. It’s just putting in a little bit of work and that’s all it really is. Staying ready so you don’t have to get ready.

“(I am) more blessed than happy. You don’t wish for no one’s downfall, but at the same time you got to stay ready and show that you stay ready and that you can do what you need to do to help the team win. At the same time everybody has a role on the team and this just happens to be mine.”

Johnson has shown a lot of promise since he was drafted 16th overall by Chicago in 2009. Unfortunately, that promise has been overshadowed by inconsistency or what might be better described as overconfidence and it’s caused him to bounce around the NBA. It hasn’t always been easy for him to accept the role his various head coaches have assigned, but when he has, he built up a lot of support. No one questions what he can do for a team.

“(Johnson) was fundamentally sound, “Casey said after a recent Raptors victory. “He didn’t do too many crazy things. I thought he was solid. He did a decent job defensively. Offensively he took what the game gave him. He didn’t force anything.”

Unfortunately in the past James has often followed up these solid performances with stinkers and if he could find some consistency, his role would expand.

“That’s a good analogy,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of players in the league though, a lot of players in the league that are trying to find their way. James (Johnson), just the focus, the attention to detail every possession, not taking possessions off – you could say that about a lot of guys. Put any name in front of that, a lot of young players in this league and that’s James. He had a solid game and now the challenge is to continue to do that for all the minutes he’s on the floor.”

Johnson has been an important reserve during this recent run of Raptors injuries. He has started 3 games and scored in double-digits in two of his last three appearances. Toronto would have been hard pressed to have gone 7-3 over their last 10 games without him, however, don’t look for his role to change. He’s still that really important guy to have around if and when you need him because of circumstance.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson Passing On His Tough Lessons

Raptors James Johnson may not realize it, but he really does have a lot of fan support in Toronto. The combo forward has the ability to make an impact on a game. However, Johnson has struggled to find a role he has felt reflects his effort and talent everywhere he has played and the disconnect keeps landing him in some measure of trouble. The most interesting aspect of this is Johnson knows it and these are tough lessons he is willing to pass on.

James Johnson looks left

“I’ve been there, I know,” Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “I’ve been there and I don’t want these guys taking the same path I’ve chose. It’s not a good path.”

Somewhat unexpectedly Johnson has become an example and even a mentor for the Raptors younger players. As a veteran fighting for minutes, Johnson is in the spot Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright and Norman Powell want to be in.

“We watch the veterans and see what they do,” Wright said after preseason was over. “Definitely J.J. has been helping me. Comes in early, gets his work in, also gives us confidence to get out there and play.”

Johnson knows how hard it is to stick in the league. He’s been on 5 different NBA teams and even played in the NBA D-League for 10 games before being picked up by the Grizzlies in 2013-14. After the Grizzlies didn’t re-sign him, the Raptors brought him back last season for a second go-around in Toronto.

The D-League experience and being passed over by the Grizzlies was a humbling experience, not that those tough lessons sunk in quite as deeply as it appeared they had, but Johnson understands what happened. He really does have a lot of useful experience to pass along.

“It’s continuing to work hard and know what you are working hard for,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you don’t see the big picture of why you are working right now or why am I not playing if we are losing and things like that. You just got to stay the course and trust in God and do the little things that you have to do.”

Perhaps the biggest and most important lesson for just about every young player hoping to make their mark in the NBA is to figure out you probably aren’t the best player on the court now and likely won’t be in the future. It can be a hard lesson to learn.

“You are not going to be the best player on the court or you are not going to be the scorer that you think you could be or anything like that,” Johnson explained. “So you have to try to find your niche and what’s best for you.”

Recently Johnson make the all-to-common mistake of expressing his feelings on twitter – another lesson all young players should be paying attention to. The hard part about social media is once it’s out there, it’s out there, but it doesn’t diminish the value Johnson brings to his team or his teammates, change who he is or what he can do.

Since Johnson returned to the Raptors just over a year ago, he has known the right things to say and do. He really can pass on the tough lessons he’s learned so his younger teammates don’t make the same mistakes. Also, his ardent fans aren’t wrong. Just like last year, the Raptors will need Johnson and before this season is over, Johnson will make a difference. Hopefully this time, those tough lessons sink in for him as well.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

James Johnson Will Help The Raptors This Season

Looking suspiciously like the odd man out in a deep frontcourt, Toronto Raptors veteran forward James Johnson knows he will help his team this season. He also knows that it probably won’t be on the court during games, at least not initially. Johnson is under no delusions about his spot in head coach Dwane Casey’s rotation.James Johnson warming up by Paul Saini Fylmm

Casey has made it clear that, bearing injury, his rotation will have 4-4.5 big men. Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola will start, Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson will come off the bench, and the team would like to find some minutes for Canadian Anthony Bennett. Casey keeps talking up Bennett’s defense, but his overall play is something that still needs to be proven during the regular season.

Johnson’s role is back to being a versatile forward who can be an effective substitution in case one of the rotation players isn’t available – an injury reserve player and it’s a role he is finally coming to accept.

“I think being in the league and out of the league and being on some tough teams – some really good teams and some really bad teams – I’ve learned not to lose my confidence over stuff like that and not get upset,” Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “The coach wants to win just like you do and he is going to put people in positions to be successful regardless of whether we win or lose. So I have to keep that in the back of my mind, keep your attitude and your self in check, it’s tough.

“During the year people are going to get hurt, god forbid, and people are going to have to step up and when those people come back from being hurt, they go back to their normal role regardless of whether you have been playing the best basketball of your career or not. So you got to know that and know you are just here to help.”

Johnson has stepped up in an injury reserve role over the past couple of seasons and at times he has played fantastic. It hasn’t always been easy to accept that he would be back on the bench when the injured players returned, but it seems like Johnson has finally come to terms with his role.

Johnson also knows he needs to be a positive role model for the Raptors younger players – a mentor even. Johnson has been through the school of hard knocks and knows through first hand experience just how tough it can be to stick in the league. If he can help players like Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira through the challenges of sitting on the bench and frequent trips to the NBA D-League that is valuable to Coach Casey.

“I think a lot of (the younger players) look up to me without saying anything,” Johnson said. “I just have to keep in the back of my head as a reminder everything I do on and off the court I am being looked at. So I just try and stay professional and do the right thing every day.

“You are used to being the man when you come up that is why you are here among the best players in the world. So, it’s just putting that attitude in check and staying confident and staying ready for whenever your number is called.”

Johnson is an exciting and dynamic player. Those games with 20+ points, double-digit rebounds, multiple blocks and/or steals are a lot easier to remember than the games Casey was pulling what’s left of his hair out on the bench. Those games are easier for Johnson to remember as well, however, it doesn’t change his role on the Raptors.

The versatile forward should be considered something of a luxury in Toronto. If someone goes down, Johnson can step in and he can be a difference maker. At some point this season, Johnson will be the deciding factor in one or more Raptors victories. If he can be a good example for the younger players as well, he can make a difference from day one.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association

 

 

 

Raptors Coach Casey & Director of Scouting Dan TolzmanCoach Casey Provides Clues To The Raptors Rotation

While an open practice doesn’t even hold the meaning of a a preseason game, it does appear to confirm Coach Casey’s recent comments about how effective Scola was with the starters and that Patterson will provide three-point shooting off the bench again this season.

 

 

 

Why Raptors James Johnson Is A High Value Forward

It’s no secret that Toronto Raptors James Johnson has the ability to get under a coach’s skin. He is a skilled uber-athlete that can drive anyone crazy with his wildly inconsistent play. However, at just $2.5 million for the upcoming NBA season, he is not just a high value forward, he is as S.I.’s Rob Mahoney suggests one of The 30 best contracts in the NBA.

As per usual Johnson filled up the stats sheet as a combo forward in his second tour with the Raptors this past season. He averaged 7.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals and a block in just 19.6 minutes over 70 games. Johnson would have played in more games if he could have stayed out of Head Coach Dwane Casey’s doghouse on a couple of occasions. But that level of production truly was value for money.

Going back to Johnson’s first stint under Casey a few years ago, this past season was nothing special. However, Johnson got himself shipped out of town for a second round draft pick back then anyway. During his first trip Johnson wanted to play more at power forward as he wasn’t comfortable on the perimeter and he made his feelings all too well known.

The problem being Johnson plays better  at the three spot. However, given a choice, he likes to freelance in the middle of the court near the paint at both ends where he can use his mobility against typically slower power forwards and that kind of undisciplined play doesn’t sit well with Casey.

Also, while Johnson’s career 10.3 percent rebounding rate is good for a small forward, it’s terrible for a power forward and the Raptors issues on the glass are well documented. They need a more responsible big man cleaning the glass and discipline isn’t something Johnson is known for.

However, the now 28-year-old Johnson came to Toronto saying all the right things last summer and he did try to live up to his own promises – at least most of the time and in front of the public and the media.

“It was a crazy road for me, but I’ve learned a lot – a lot from my mistakes,” Johnson said on his arrival in Toronto. “I am definitely not (the same guy). Going down to the D-League and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.

“Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was. I feel real comfortable at the three spot. We have good fours here.”

Perhaps the most telling comment Johnson made upon his arrival back in Toronto last summer was a commitment to cheer for his teammates even if he wasn’t getting the playing time he wanted. That was a sign of maturity that was absent the first time.

“I want to win and I am going to be cheering for my team,” Johnson said. “And there is going to be no faking when I stand up clapping for my guys and they are going to know that.”

While Johnson’s value to Coach Casey comes primarily from defense, he found his offensive rhythm last season playing off the Raptors scorers.

“It’s more the feel of the game, what the game is giving me,” Johnson said. “If I feel I can get to the bucket, I do and most of the time it’s not me driving, it’s me cutting off DeMar (DeRozan) or Kyle (Lowry) driving and they dump the ball off those cuts.”

The result was spectacular dunks flying towards the rim on a fairly regular basis and a previously absent ability to finish through traffic.

In the past Johnson finished about 60 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim as he would fade away or get stripped, but this past year he figured out how to protect the ball and finish through contract and 77.7 percent of his attempts went in.

“Kyle (Lowry) taught me a lot about getting the contact first and still being able to move the ball out of the way,” Johnson said.

Johnson takes over half of his shots in close and figuring out how to finish helped him raise his overall field goal rate to 58.9 percent – that’s just below Dwight Howard. Pretty good value for a $2.5 million player.

Of course there is always a downside with Johnson. He still hoisted 51 three-balls last year and only made 11 – he was left open out there for a reason. However, if he can keep those wide-open long range jump shoots under one per game, Casey should be able to just cringe and live with it.

Looking at the Raptors depth after their free agent moves this summer leaves Johnson in precisely the same position as last year. The Raptors still need a backup small forward, however, this time Johnson will be backing up the veteran DeMarre Carroll instead of a developing Terrence Ross.

The pressures for Johnson will be the same as well. If Casey doesn’t like what he sees, Johnson’s minutes could end up going to someone else, this year Ross or (gulp) Bruno Caboclo. Johnson might just need to bump his value to Casey even higher this season and from what he’s shown, he is capable of making his $2.5 million salary look like an even better contract than he did last year.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

photo credit: Paul Saini, Fylmm.com

Raptors James Johnson Explains How He’s Shooting 60 Percent

Shooting 60 percent or better from the field is a feat generally reserved for centers and power forwards that live in the paint and collect a significant portion of their buckets on putbacks and chippies around the rim. Such high percentage shooting is not usually attainable by combo forwards like the Toronto Raptors James Johnson and he has never come close to finishing this well before the current season. So what’s changed for the sometimes starting small forward, sometimes situational backup combo forward?

“It’s just maturity,” Johnson explained to Pro Bball Report. “Taking the right shots and attacking the paint a little bit more. Taking the open shots and shooting with confidence.”

Johnson isn’t known for having a reliable jump shot and his ability to finish outside of the paint has always been suspect, so this year he has significantly shifted his attempts towards the restricted area, taking fewer risks with his shot and accepting what the defenses have been giving him. Over 60 percent of Johnson’s attempts have been in the restricted area and he scores on over 74 percent of those chances.

“It’s more the feel of the game, what the game is giving me,” Johnson said. “It’s not this is the shot you should take now or this is not the one, it’s instincts. If I feel I can get to the bucket, I do and most of the time it’s not me driving, it’s me cutting off DeMar (DeRozan) or Kyle (Lowry) driving and they dump the ball off those cuts.”

The result has been spectacular dunks flying towards the rim on a fairly regular basis and an uncharacteristic ability to finish through what looks like traffic, but often is Johnson taking advantage of a defender that wasn’t really ready for what just happened.

The only complaint might be Johnson’s reluctance to continue attacking the rim if he feels the defender is prepared for him and dishing off the ball when it appears he had a good chance of out-athleteing his opponent.

“I have a couple of isos for me that Coach calls, but other than that it’s just when my opportunity is there I take it and if it’s not there, I use it to get somebody else open,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s midrange and three-point game remain a concern and opponents have started to noticeably sag off of him, but where his jump shot still looks ugly from inside the arc, there are signs his three-ball may be rounding into form. Prior to February, Johnson was shooting a typically sad 19.4 percent on 31 long range attempts, but since then he’s shot 4-11 from deep and the reason could be defender’s rarely even bother to consider Johnson a threat out there anymore.

“There are so many eyes on the other guys that I am getting wide open and the scouting report (says) I haven’t been shooting the ball that well this year, so a lot of guys are not closing out to me the way they close out to other players,” Johnson said. “So I am taking my time and shooting my normal shot.

“I have been doing the same things, the same workouts and I am slowly getting to a jump shot that I feel comfortable with.”

It’s not a big sample size, but if the League lets Johnson get comfortable enough to shoot in the mid-30 percent range from three, it would greatly enhance his value in Coach Casey’s offense.

Midway through March Johnson is averaging 59.8 percent shooting from the field on 338 attempts and that’s fifth best in the Association among players with at least 300 attempts. The players ahead of Johnson include center DeAndre Jordan (71.6), center Tyson Chandler (67.3), center Rudy Gobert (61.6) and power forward Ed Davis (60.8). The Raptors Amir Johnson is sixth on that list at 57.7 percent.

A career 47.4 percent shooter from the field, Johnson’s improvement this season has been as dramatic as it was unexpected and even his own explanations only seem to partially clarify the change. Combo forwards that spend a lot of time at the three spot are not expected to finish at this rate.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

photo credit: Paul Saini, Fylmm.com

 

 

James Johnson warmup line Paul Saini FYLMMToronto Raptors James Johnson Gets Serious

“When you are winning everyone is having fun and when you are losing, it’s time to get back to the serious page of doing things the right way, staying locked-in in the locker room and just doing the little things right,” Johnson said.

 

 

 

Why James Johnson Is Starting To Shine In Toronto

It was something of a surprise when Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri brought James Johnson back to Toronto, however, the big versatile forward is starting to shine and the reasons go all the way back to before this past summer.

“I think (Kyle Lowry and Coach Casey) are going to help him and DeMar (DeRozan) – they know (James Johnson),” Ujiri said after signing Johnson. “They are close to him. They were big advocates of getting a big strong defender like James Johnson and he has his issues in the past, but haven’t we all and we’ll help him get over them and this is a good opportunity for him. He has to take advantage of it.”

Johnson was the 16th overall draft pick by the Bulls in 2009 and the then 22-year-old forward seemed to be making reasonable progress over his first season and a half with Chicago. However, after returning from a D-League assignment with the Iowa Energy in mid-February, the Bulls traded him to Toronto for a late first round draft pick. Obviously, something wasn’t working out. Johnson was given every opportunity by the Raptors new Head Coach Dwane Casey and put up good numbers, but at the end of the 2011-12 season, Johnson was traded to the Kings for second round draft pick amid suggestions of conflict between Casey and himself. The Kings owned Johnson’s rookie rights, but let him walk after the season. A tryout with the Hawks fell through and Johnson ended up in the D-League until the Grizzlies picked him up in December. Again Johnson played well, but it was the Raptors who came calling in free agency last summer, not the Grizzlies. Johnson has travelled a long crazy road to get where he is.

“It was a crazy road for me, but I’ve learned a lot – a lot from my mistakes,” Johnson said on his arrival in Toronto. “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.”

It should be clear that it never about the talent that kept bouncing Johnson from team-to-team and he isn’t a bad guy with the media either. His old teammates even seem supportive. It always seemed to be about maturity and Casey was willing to give this now older and more experienced version of Johnson another shot.

“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).”

Being rejected, not once, but five times, would have a sobering influence on anyone and ending up in the D-League after playing pretty well was huge. The words coming from Johnson now carried a lot more weight than they did previously.

“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.

“Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was. I feel real comfortable at the three spot. We have good fours here. We have Patrick Patterson. We have Tyler Hansbrough. Wherever I can fill the void between (those) two and help out I will.”

Johnson has played at both the three and the four spot for Casey and for possibly the first time in his professional career Johnson got it. Teams were hiring him to do a job, to fill a role and if he didn’t want to accept that, they would and could find somebody else.

“I am definitely not (the same guy),” Johnson said. “Going down to the D-League, developing different skills and developing my confidence and my all-around game really helped me out and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.

“I accepted (my role). I knew what my role was going to be before I signed that contract (with Toronto). You can’t come to a job expecting to get $5 and then want more because you work harder than everybody else. You know what you signed up for and that’s what I did. I signed up for the defensive part and I am an opportunity scorer, so I deal with that.”

To be fair, Johnson isn’t the kid that arrived in Toronto in 2011 the first time. He just turned 28-years-old and this version of the Raptors is more mature and can provide more support. There are players in Toronto that know him and want him to succeed.

“It’s love,” Johnson said. “I had some other decisions to make, but I felt like this was the place to be. I like the guys on the team. (I’ve) been around them. Amir Johnson has been a good inspiration and we spent a big part of the summer together in L.A. working out and in Houston.”

“Greivis Vasquez is here man. A guy I used to (play) in college, we used to battle. He lets me know what I’m doing wrong or when my demeanor is down – body language, so he’s a good guy to have around.”

The environment is different this time as well. Toronto was a 20-something win team in his first go-around. Today, the Raptors are the current Atlantic Division Champions and are on pace to win over 50 games for the first time in franchise history. It is easier to do the right thing in a winning environment.

“I am having fun,” Johnson said. “When you accept your role it is easier to cope with what’s going on.

“It’s fun winning and that’s all that matters.”

The evidence that Johnson is onboard with what the organization wants and what Coach Casey demands has been there all season. Johnson has started, come off the bench, played big minutes, limited minutes and even sat through a couple of DNP-CDs. His level of play hasn’t wavered and the “there is going to be no faking when I stand up clapping for my guys” is coming true.

Ujiri gave Johnson a chance and he did have something to prove to Ujiri, to Casey and to his teammates. So far he has been taking advantage of this opportunity the right way, with the right attitude and that is what has been letting Johnson’s talent shine in Toronto this time.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 photo credit Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

 

Toronto Raptors James Johnson Gets Serious

It’s been a vastly improved and more serious James Johnson in his second go-around with the Toronto Raptors and as his team started to struggle with DeMar DeRozan out of the lineup, he took it to another level. Johnson’s smiling face from earlier in the season – yes he is happy to be back in Toronto – has been replaced with a look of focus and concentration. When your team is facing adversity, there is no more playing around, it’s time to get serious.

“When you are winning everyone is having fun and when you are losing, it’s time to get back to the serious page of doing things the right way, staying locked-in in the locker room and just doing the little things right,” Johnson said.

Johnson has a role in Toronto and it’s a role that suits his particular skill-set and stage of his career. He often mentions the Raptors “white squad” or second unit with a note of pride. Toronto’s strong bench has been a big part of the team’s success this year.

“I am having fun (this season),” Johnson said. “When you accept your role it is easier to cope with what’s going on.”

Not always noticed from the outside, the person who helps the second unit guys cope with what’s going on is the outspoken Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez has made no secret of the fact he believes he can be a starter in the NBA, but that he puts winning first ahead of himself and he proved that by re-upping with the Raptors as a free agent this past summer.

“Greivis Vasquez is here man,” Johnson said. “A guy I used to (play) in college, we used to battle. (‘I keep him focused that’s it,’ Vasquez chimed in.) Yeah definitely, he lets me know what I’m doing wrong or when my demeanor is down – body language, so he’s a good guy to have around.”

Johnson’s strained relationship with Head Coach Dwane Casey in 2012 has resolved itself because of the maturity Johnson has shown this season. Always a skilled player, his stats are strikingly similar to those in 2011-2012 when the Raptors decided to send him to the Kings for a second round draft pick. This time Johnson has supplemented his natural talent with better decision-making and that more serious approach has been paying off.

“Years in the league are more important than years of age,” Johnson said. “Guys come in that are our age, maybe they were in China, maybe overseas somewhere or maybe they were in the D-League for a while, they come in and it’s a whole different game – a harder game to adjust to. Playing for a while in this league makes it easy.”

The last season Johnson was with the Raptors, he was taking over 32 percent of his shots from 10 feet away out to the three-point line and Johnson’s mid-range shot is terrible. Now he takes 76.5 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the basket and he’s finishing more of them than ever before. He is averaging 59.3 percent from the field compared to a career average of 46.5 percent. Johnson still takes about 15 percent of his shots from three-point range and only hits on about 20 percent of them, but they are taken in the flow of the game and don’t look forced.

Despite the vastly more efficient offense, Casey still wants him on the court for his defense and Johnson is grabbing defensive rebounds at the highest rate of his career (17 percent of available defensive boards) and perhaps as importantly, Johnson is looking after the ball better. His turnover rate is 13.9 percent, down from his career average of 16.8 percent. Johnson is still blocking shots and getting steals the same as always.

At 27-years-old (28 in February), this is Johnson’s sixth NBA season and the changes from when he was in Toronto last time are hard to miss. He has become a lot more serious and focused player with experience and become huge addition to Coach Casey’s rotation.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 photo credit Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

 

James Johnson stretching by Paul Saini FYLMMWhy Raptors James Johnson Isn’t The Same Guy This Year

“I am definitely not (the same guy),” Johnson said. “Going down to the D-League, developing different skills and developing my confidence and my all-around game really helped me out and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.”

 

 

 

Raptors Ready To Be Road Tested Against The NBA’s Best

The first place 22-6 Toronto Raptors cut through a depleted visiting New York Knicks team 118-108 with minimal effort on Sunday for their sixth win in a row and ninth win in the month of December and with the streak they have guaranteed themselves another winning month – their seventh winning month in a row going back to last season. Now they feel ready to be tested on their longest road trip of the season against the toughest string of competitors that they will face this year during the regular season.

First up are the 17-9 Bulls in Chicago on Monday night, then after four days off for Christmas, the Raptors head out on a five game Western Conference road trip against the best the West can throw at them.

“Tomorrow will be a game that lets us know where we are in the league,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said. “We have to show where we fit in that sphere. It was a good day today, but now we have to go and take care of business tomorrow.”

“We definitely owe this (Bulls) team,” Amir Johnson said. “They beat us here at home. We let that one get away from us, so we really want to get this win. Especially (because) we got this little Christmas break (and it would) just make it a lot better.”

“We still got a bad taste in our mouth about the last time,” James Johnson said. “Hopefully we can figure some things out. We are not the same team we were when we played them the first time. I think we’ve improved and our half court offense, we are executing it pretty well right now.”

“We need to approach this game a little pissed off because last time they just played better than we did, so we got to really show a different team tomorrow,” Greivis Vasquez said. “It is important that we play good teams. This is really going to test our character. We haven’t really faced adversity and everything right now is great, but I think we are ready for a really good test.

“Tomorrow is a playoff game for us.”

The Raptors took care of business early against the Knicks on Sunday and never trailed as Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross combined for 40 points as the starting guards and reserve guards Vasquez and Lou Williams combined for 43 more points. Carmelo Anthony scored 28 points on 26 shots as he led the Knicks offense until Head Coach Derek Fisher threw in the towel down 18 points with about six minutes left and subbed Anthony out for good.

With the early lead and the Knicks unable to sustain any kind of run to threaten it, Casey was able to keep his starters minutes down with the upcoming back-to-back game against the Bulls.

The Bulls defeated Toronto at the Air Canada Center in mid-November 100-93 on the strength of a dominate third quarter in which they held the Raptors to just 14 points – the second fewest points scored by Toronto in a quarter this season. Overall, the Bulls held Toronto to their worst field goal percentage of the season (39.3) and second lowest points total despite the Raptors outscoring the Bulls by 14 points combined over the first, second and fourth quarters.

The fourth place Bulls are 5-1 over their past six games – Monday’s game will be a big test for both teams.

After the dust settles on Monday’s contest, the Raptors get a true break in the schedule and don’t play again until December 27th in Los Angeles against the Clippers (19-8). Then it’s off to mile-high Denver on the back-to-back to face the 12-15 Nuggets. The toughest tests are likely to be against the second place Trail Blazers (22-6) on December 30 and the first place overall Warriors (22-3) on January 2nd. The road trip ends in Phoenix on January 4th against the 15-14 run-and-gun Suns.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Vasquez said. “We are looking forward to this challenge. Anytime you go to the West, it’s not easy, but we are good enough to come out with a couple of wins and do our job.”

“I’m ready for it,” Casey said. “I’ve been preaching it and we should be ready for it. Everyone is all excited, but again, reality is real and we have to be ready for adversity whenever it hits. You go in with positive vibes and are ready to kick some behind, but when adversity hits that’s when you find out how close we are and how we have to stick together.”

Toronto faces teams with a combined record of 107-55 on this six game road trip including four playoff bound teams. A road trip isn’t often going to be tougher than this in any year – if ever.

The Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan hasn’t played since the end of November due to a groin strain, however, he looked really good during pregame warm-ups on Sunday and ran down the tunnel to the locker room like he was 100 percent. There is still no word on a possible return date for DeRozan and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the team took advantage of the upcoming break to give him a few more days to rest before re-evaluating the situation. However, he did look really good on Sunday.

“One thing about (DeRozan) is he’s a great pro, he’s a great friend, he’s a great teammate, he is happy for us,” Vasquez said. “We let him know how much we need him. We are nothing without him. We want him back. We enjoy (sitting) on the bench watching him play, it’s a privilege especially for a guy like me, I don’t have that athleticism. We need our whole team back because we are playing for something bigger.”

As the new guys on the top of the heap in the NBA East, the Raptors feel the need to keep proving themselves and this road trip provides them with that opportunity.  Although they are 7-2 against the West so far, they haven’t taken down a top tier team from the other (better) conference on the road yet this season.  This is their chance to muzzle their doubters or discover their shortfalls.

After this grueling road trip, the Raptors return home for six in a row at the Air Canada Centre starting on January 8th against the Hornets. Then it’s Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New Orleans.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

James Johnson stretching by Paul Saini FYLMMToronto Raptors Winning With Defense Again

“We got to stop playing to our competition and play Raptors basketball,” James Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “We the North and we got to start acting like it.”

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Toronto Raptors Winning With Defense Again

The NBA Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors are off to the best start in franchise history by a wide margin at 19-6, however, Head Coach Dwane Casey has had plenty to complain about until recently. A defense-first coach, Casey wasn’t enjoying his team’s 9 game streak of giving up over 100 points per outing and their 5-4 record over that stretch reflected the change. The Raptors may have been missing the chemistry and offense an injured DeMar DeRozan would have provided, but that wasn’t a good excuse for slacking at the defensive end of the court.

“We got to stop playing to our competition and play Raptors basketball,” James Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “We the North and we got to start acting like it.”

After a nice two day break to get in some much needed practice time last week, Toronto got back to the style Coach Casey wants to play. Over the next three games the Raptors opponents averaged just 86.7 points on 42.2 percent shooting from the field. Coach Casey’s defense was back.

“(Defense) that’s what we do,” Johnson said. “Once we come to that conclusion then everything else becomes a breeze.”

On Friday the Raptors held the Pacers to 94 points on 41.3 percent shooting from the field in the win and dominated one of the league’s best rebounding teams 52-39.

Sunday in New York the Raptors held the Knicks to 37.2 shooting for the game in an ugly turnover and foul ridden affair that was tied after four quarters. Then in overtime Toronto clamped down on the game’s leading scorer Carmelo Anthony (34 points, but 0-3 in OT) and the Knicks to hold them to 1-8 shooting from the field and pull out the 95-90 win.

On the back-to-back Monday against Orlando it took a tired Toronto team until the second half to stifle the Magic. The Raptors held their opponent to 30 points and 37.1 percent shooting in the second half as Toronto ran away with this game 95-82 after trailing by 8 points at the break.

In the 9 games prior to this the Raptors were scoring buckets free and easy averaging over 110 points per game, but they were giving up over 108 points and that hasn’t been Raptors basketball under Coach Casey.

“We just have to know that (buckets) aren’t always going to come that easy,” Johnson said. “There are going to be nights when our shooters are not going to be scoring like that and we are going to need others to step up at the other end of the floor.

“(Defense) is definitely what we need to do. That is our goal. We have a goal and a standard and we need to accomplish them.”

As Casey said after the game on Monday, “We found our defensive mojo” and the Raptors have been winning games they way they have been coached to once again.

James Johnson audio:

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

GSW Curry and ThompsonNBA Dominance Rankings 12-14-14

The top team in the NBA these days by a wide margin is the Golden State Warriors and it isn’t even close – not by any subjective measure. 5. Raptors 18-6 Toronto has hit a bump in the road with DeMar DeRozan sidelined for the past 2 weeks and not expected back before Christmas.

 

 

Raptors James Johnson Is Proud of His Passing

It is easy to see the positive impact James Johnson has been having on the Raptors. Greivis Vasquez called him spicy and crazy and made a comparison to the Grizzlies Tony Allen, all complements Johnson was happy to embrace.

Johnson was acquired for his defense and rebounding, but he has always had a flair for offense and not a just little overconfidence in his ability to score, so it was somewhat surprising to hear the pride in his voice about his passing. Especially when one realizes he’s been finishing his own shots at above 50 percent from the field.

 

 

“I think the big play for me today was either the throw ahead to Patrick Patterson or when I dropped it to Greivis or when I dropped to Patterson for the three-pointers,” Johnson said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”

Those were all big plays and Johnson gave up his own potential run at the rim to drop a pass to Patterson for the uncontested three-pointer that capped an 11-0 run and tied the game at 83 early in the fourth quarter.

What is surprising is Johnson had his own huge scoring play late in the game with a big time slam that put the Raptors up 97-95 and that wasn’t the play Johnson wanted to reminisce over.

As has been noted before, this isn’t the same Johnson the Raptors saw two years ago. This Johnson knows and accepts his role and he has been excelling because of it.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

James Johnson closeupWhy Raptors James Johnson Isn’t The Same Guy This Year

“I am definitely not (the same guy),” Johnson said. “Going down to the D-League, developing different skills and developing my confidence and my all-around game really helped me out and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.”

 

 

TOR_Johnson_JamesCan Raptors James Johnson Accept His Role In Toronto?

“Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was,” Johnson said. “I feel real comfortable at the three spot. We have good fours here. We have Patrick Patterson. We have Tyler Hansbrough. Wherever I can fill the void between (those) two and help out I will.”

 

 

 

Why Raptors James Johnson Isn’t The Same Guy This Year

This is James Johnson’s second go-round in Toronto under Head Coach Dwane Casey and there were questions about his maturity after the Raptors shipped him out to Sacramento for a second round draft pick two years ago. However, this is not the same guy Toronto gave up on in 2012 and he has been a major contributor coming off the bench for Casey this season.

 

 

“I am definitely not (the same guy),” Johnson said. “Going down to the D-League, developing different skills and developing my confidence and my all-around game really helped me out and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.”

Johnson learned the hard way that teams in the NBA don’t owe a player anything. After the Kings opted to let him go following the 2012-13 season, he was waived by the Hawks before the 2013-14 season started and Johnson ended up in the NBA D-League until the Grizzlies needed an injury replacement in December. Johnson played well for the Grizzlies, but didn’t make a big enough impression to stick after the season ended. He has good reasons for knowing he can’t take anything for granted.

However, Johnson is better than before, picking up the nuances of the game from players like Zach Randolph last year and Kyle Lowry as he prepared for this year. Already Johnson has displayed the defensive energy that he has been known for and an unexpected ability to finish through contract, something he often struggled with earlier in his career.

“I think so,” Johnson said. “Playing with some good guys, Kyle (Lowry) taught me a lot about getting the contact first and still being able to move the ball out of the way. In practice – (like) Zach Randolph (Grizzlies) – throughout my seasons. At the same time I am just doing what is necessary for the game and doing what feels right to me, so when I go up and attack you, I feel like I can jump higher than you, I feel like I have a stronger body and maybe none of those things are true, but that’s what I am feeling.”

Johnson often does have the physical advantage when playing small forward and some of the difference from two years ago may be credited to confidence as much as to technique. More important has been Johnson’s acceptance of his role on the Raptors and willingness to defer to his teammates on offense when they have the better chance to score. Knowing he can contribute to a win without filling up his own stat line is perhaps the biggest change in Johnson from two years ago.

“I bet it would be different for other teammates on this team with different roles, but you know my role is to play defense and (be) an opportunity scorer and a lot of those opportunities weren’t there for me in the first game, but defense is always going to be there,” Johnson said. “I just try to control what I can control which is locking my guy down.

“It’s fun winning and that’s all that matters.”

Much of the Raptors success last season came because all of the players on the team decided it was more fun winning and that was all that mattered. Since he arrived in Toronto, Johnson has been saying the right things, but more importantly, since the season has started, Johnson has accepted his role and is doing the right things on the court. This is not the same guy that left Toronto two years ago.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

New Orleans Pelicans Media DayStiemsma Rocks The Thunder In Raptors Debut

“I knew the situation coming in that minutes were going to be here and there, hit and miss, kind of matchup-wise and seeing a couple of guys go down, I kind of had a feeling that tonight might be the night I had a debut,” Stiemsma said.

 

 

TOR_Hayes_ChuckRaptors Are Winning The Grind Early This Season

“It’s a grind. It’s a marathon. You can’t wear your emotions on your sleeve in this profession because it will eat you up.”

 

 

Is The Raptors Rotation Already Set For The Season?

With less than two weeks left before the start of the 2014-1015 NBA regular season, the Toronto Raptors rotation appears set. Any tweaks Head Coach Dwane Casey might make to what should be a 9 or 10 man group of regulars is down to some very fine distinctions.

Depth Chart

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez

Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams

Small Forward: Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Landry Fields, Bruno Caboclo

Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough

Center: Jonas Valanciunas, Chuck Hayes, Lucas Nogueira

Training camp tryouts: guard Will Cherry, forward Jordan Hamilton and center Greg Stiemsma

Last year’s franchise record setting starting lineup is back and unless someone gets hurt, they’ll be the starters for every game this season. Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas led the Raptors to the best record in the entire Eastern Conference (41-22) after the seven-player trade with Sacramento in December and their 29 wins as a starting unit was a franchise record for a single season. There are no decisions to be made here.

The backup spots are a little less clear, but only slightly. There are players who can win jobs and minutes, however, it’s unlikely Casey is going to change his rotation based on preseason games alone.

Backup Guards

The battle for the backup guard spots was over before it began. Cherry has a camp invite, but even if he sticks, it will be as a 15th man. Vasquez was re-signed to a $13 million 2-year deal to back up Lowry and the 9-year veteran Williams was specifically acquired to bring some scoring off the bench. Both Williams and Vasquez are used to playing well over 20 minutes per game and their impact on the court suggests they should play more, but Lowry and DeRozan are both big minute players and unless Casey gets creative with some three guard lineups, the backup minutes at guard will be low and inconsistent.

Fortunately for Vasquez and Williams, Casey had a lot of success with two point guard lineups last season and more of the same should be expected. Plus at 6’6 Vasquez can guard a lot of the wings in this league, so Casey has options, but perhaps the biggest benefit of all this depth will be to cruise through injury situations and to keep his starters minutes more manageable.

If the backup guards prove to be as effective as expected, the big loser in terms of minutes is likely to be James Johnson.

Backup Wings

After getting beaten up by Joe Johnson in the playoffs, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri would look to add a big mobile athletic forward that can cover a power small forward. James Johnson is just such a player. This is his second tour with the Raptors and the 27-year-old shows the signs of maturity that come from bouncing around the league and losing one’s spot in the rotation after periods of being pretty effective. The small forward backup role is Johnson’s to lose and he can earn himself more minutes at power forward in small lineups with responsible defense.

Fields can cover both wing spots and is a responsible defender, but his shooting touch has been lost to a nerve issue in his shooting arm that just will not go away. He remains a nice depth player because of his basketball I.Q. and willingness to defer on offense, but unless he can re-invent his game, he’ll be a 12th man on the Raptors.

Caboclo just turned 19-years-old and it will be the franchise’s story of the season if he can crack the rotation on merit, but no one is selling that possibility too hard just yet. Elastic-man long arms and a decent three-point touch suggest the potential is there to surprise, but on a veteran team, Caboclo is expected to play more in the D-League than the NBA this year. However, don’t sleep on the rookie either – pay attention to what he does with any opportunities.

The surprise coming out of camp could be Jordan Hamilton. Because of the Raptors depth at this position, the training camp invite was given no chance at a job before preseason began, but since then, Hamilton has been showing that maybe he deserves to stick anyway. The kid can score and hasn’t looked out-of-place – for a guy striving to grab the 15th spot on the roster.

Backup Big Men

Patrick Patterson re-signed for 3-years and $18 million this summer and will be the first big off the bench. The 25-year-old looks and acts like he’s closer to 30 and he thrived in the role Casey gave him last season. A stretch-four than can guard in the post as well as on the perimeter, Patterson believes he could steal the starting job and that isn’t an unreasonable goal – really tough to accomplish, but reasonable.

Casey could easily decide to run with just three big men in a 9-man rotation and no one could seriously argue with him. Amir Johnson is this team’s next best center, however, Toronto has a wealth of big men, so Casey has some very solid options.

Last season Patterson and Hansbrough played well together even if it left the center position a little undersized. There are few players that are more active in the paint and willing to fight for position than what Hansbrough brings every night. Fortunately, there are also few teams that can put a decent 7-footer on the floor as a backup center, so the 6’9 Hansbrough is not at as big a disadvantage guarding the basket as he would be in the starting unit.

Hansbrough has some serious competition, however. The veteran Chuck Hayes is at an even bigger height disadvantage than Hansbrough, but he is smart, quick and able to show and recover better than most big men. At 6’6, Hayes does not provide any rim protection or much of an offensive threat, but he comes well prepared and will outwork almost anyone.

The rookie Bebe Nogueira has that long lanky look of many centers in today’s NBA. Fast with quick ups and the ability to become a true rim protector on defense and a rim rocker at the other end – that is if he can figure out the NBA game after a couple of years as a reserve in Spain. Currently sidelined with a groin strain, the Raptors are still waiting to find out what this kid can do. If he can play effective defense, he can win the backup center job – hands down, but that’s a big if.

Stiemsma has played for three NBA teams in three years and proven he can play defense at this level – offense, not so much. He has the potential to fill the role Aaron Gray once held on the Raptors as a spot duty center that can block shots, play defense and foul hard when the team is getting beat up in the paint. Except for the rim protection, Hayes fills much the same role, but the attraction of Stiemsma as a third string center is real.

Raptors Rotation

Starters: Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson, Valanciunas

Second Unit: Vasquez, Williams, James Johnson, Patterson, Hansbrough

The starters are set, the second unit is ready to go and there is enough depth to cover injuries. Plus there are just enough question marks to create a little intrigue over battles for minutes and the impact the two rookies could have during the season.

Based on how Ujiri likes to develop young players, both Caboclo and Nogueira will get a fair shake to earn a spot in the rotation at some point during the season. The question then becomes, will either of them be ready and what does Ujiri do about it if they are?

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

TOR DeRozan Ross ValanciunasToronto Raptors Roster Has The Depth For Success In 2014-15

During the Toronto Raptors five years in the NBA Draft Lottery, the team was exposed over and over again as susceptible to collapse with just one key injury. A lack of depth was a consistent problem that paralleled the lack of talent.

 

 
James Johnson closeupCan Raptors James Johnson Accept His Role In Toronto?

James Johnson has taken his turn at the school of hard knocks over the past couple of seasons. “Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was,” Johnson said.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Can Raptors James Johnson Accept His Role In Toronto?

James Johnson has taken his turn at the school of hard knocks over the past couple of seasons. A talented athletic forward somewhat trapped between the three and the four, he was constantly being pushed out of his comfort zone to become the player coaches thought he could be in the NBA. Traded twice, dropped, waived and dropped again, however, the only real question is, can Johnson accept his role in Toronto?

 

 

“Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was,” Johnson said. “I feel real comfortable at the three spot. We have good fours here. We have Patrick Patterson. We have Tyler Hansbrough. Wherever I can fill the void between (those) two and help out I will.”

Johnson seems ideal to play small forward in the NBA as a quick, rangy, athletic 6’8 player, but he was always more comfortable as a 250 lb power forward earlier in his NBA career. Head Coach Dwane Casey played Johnson at both forward spots in his first stint with the Raptors over a season and a half in 2011-2012, but it was on defense at the small forward spot that had everyone’s attention and the emphasis on that role proved difficult for Johnson to accept – in part because he can play power forward. This time, Johnson joins the Raptors with his eyes open and accepting of the role the team needs him to fill.

“I accepted (my role),” Johnson said. “I knew what my role was going to be before I signed that contract. You can’t come to a job expecting to get $5 and then want more because you work harder than everybody else. You know what you signed up for and that’s what I did. I signed up for the defensive part and I am an opportunity scorer, so I deal with that.”

Johnson needs to work hard. Once again Casey sees him filling a dual role at both the three and the four. Johnson has to learn where to be on the court offensively and defensively for both forward positions and be able to switch roles even within the same game.

“Offense is usually the hardest part to know where you have to go to get guys open or to get out of guys way,” Johnson said. “Knowing where I have to set the screens, knowing if I have to be in the dunking spot or the far corner. I can spread it out a little bit at the four, I just need to know when I have to be in the dunk (spot) or when I am able to spread it out.

“Defense, everybody plays the same defense, help defensive schemes, so it’s pretty simple on the defensive end. It’s just the rebounding and knowing when I have to get back at the three and at the four spot, I have to crash the rim. Sometimes I forget when I am at the four spot and go without having to get back in transition.”

It was not an easy role when Johnson was with the Raptors last time, but he is 27-years-old now and has five years in the league, so expectations are justifiably higher. Also, Johnson has been working on his jump shot and that’s key to eventually expanding his role on offense.

“You see that thing falling uh?” Johnson said. “It’s falling a little bit, more confidence I am getting in my (jump shot), staying in the gym shooting, working hard.

“You are going to slow down at some point in your career. You have to develop to stay in the league longer, so when people get older, their jumper starts falling.”

However, as with all the players President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has been bringing in, team chemistry has been factored into the equation. Ujiri wants players that want to be here and will fit in with the rest of the group. Johnson is in Toronto because he wants to be here.

“It’s love,” Johnson said. “I had some other decisions to make, but I felt like this was the place to be. I like the guys on the team. (I’ve) been around them. Amir Johnson has been a good inspiration and we spent a big part of the summer together in L.A. working out and in Houston.”

Johnson came back to Toronto for a second stint under Coach Casey with his eyes wide open and after learning a few valuable lessons at the school of hard knocks. He is ready to accept his role and this should make him the ideal reserve for a Raptors team that values his versatility and needed some size at the small forward position.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas the beardRaptors Jonas Valanciunas – Fear The Beard North

“(My wife) she not accepting, but I fought for it and I got it – finally I got it,” Valanciunas said. “(We) had a lot of conversations about that stuff.”

 

Caboclo smiles closeupRaptors Bruno Caboclo Is The Happiest Guy In Toronto

“Very happy,” Caboclo said. “Very, very happy because basketball is my job. I like my job. (For)ever I want to stay here in the NBA and work for the All-Star game in the future.”

 

 

A More Mature James Johnson Returns To The Raptors

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.
 

James Johnson audio:


 

“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.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

Check out:

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.”

 

What James Johnson Brings Back To The Raptors

James Johnson had played the best basketball of his NBA career for Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey during the 2011-2012 season. Playing 62 games and starting in 40, he averaged 9.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks – all career bests – in just 25.2 minutes. Then, last year in Memphis, he was even more effective on a per minute basis in 52 games including 4 starts. Johnson was going to find a place to play in the NBA next season if he had turned down Toronto’s 2-year $5 million offer.

Masai Ujiri audio:

 

Chris Faulkner, writer for SB Nation’s Grizzly Bear Blues summed up his expectations for Johnson and in the end, it seems little has changed for this very athletic forward since he left Toronto. He can still bring a lot to team.
 

“Two years is around what I thought Johnson would get after his breakout-ish season with the Grizzlies where he showed incredible athleticism, fiery energy and a passion for chaos.”

“I’m not surprised to see him leave Memphis, and I’m not surprised his card was called so early into free agency when others saw him as a Grizzlies’ backup plan later this summer. He’s got undeniable talent and a nice set of skills (although lacking one of the main features the Grizzlies need, shooting a basketball).”

 

Johnson is a talent. This kid is fast, athletic and a handful at either end of the court. However, he can also be a handful to coach as his expectations and those of the team haven’t always meshed. The 16th pick of the draft in 2009 by the Bulls, the 6’8 Johnson was traded to Toronto at the deadline in 2011 for a future late first round pick and then traded to the Kings in the summer of 2012 for a second round pick. His contract wasn’t renewed after the season, a tryout with the Hawks didn’t pan out and the Grizzlies acquired him as a free agent last December.
 

“Johnson had a rough tumble to end the season in Memphis as he was played sparingly through the final two months of the season before logging only 28 minutes in the 2014 NBA Playoffs.”

 

In Toronto, during the bleak 2011-2012 season, Johnson had started 38 of 39 games heading towards the end of March when all of a sudden he was a DNP-CD for two games in a row and was sent to the bench. Nothing official, but it looked like Johnson had gotten on the wrong side of Coach Casey and he paid for it in playing time and eventually a trip to Sacramento. It appeared Casey wanted Johnson to be a lighter and quicker defensive small forward and Johnson was still more comfortable in his college role of a heavier power forward.

When we interviewed him in February of 2012, Johnson explained how he felt.

“It’s weird that I was 250 I felt way stronger and faster at that point then I do right now,” Johnson said at the time. “I feel slightly weaker or not as strong as I use to. I’m pretty fast now but I felt faster back then. I believe it’s all mental. People say he’s 250, so he must be slower or he can’t jump as high but for me I don’t jump any higher or lower then I did. I still have a 40” vertical leap.
 
“I would like to run the four a lot more. I’m comfortable at the four but I also like to run the wings and score from the perimeter or get drives every now and again. But the four is working for me and it’s just broadening my talents and showing other people what I’m capable of doing.”

Johnson was a good teammate and a nice guy to be around when he was in Toronto, now it’s two years later and he’s 27-years-old. Johnson has undoubtedly learned a thing or two and matured some since then and he will be joining a closely knit group that will help get the most out of him.

“I think (Kyle Lowry and Coach Casey) are going to help with him and him and DeMar (DeRozan) – they know (James Johnson),” Ujiri said. “They are close to him. They were big advocates of getting a big strong defender like James Johnson and he has his issues in the past, but haven’t we all and we’ll help him get over them and this is a good opportunity for him. He has to take advantage of it.”

Lowry believes Casey and Johnson will get along fine and Johnson will jump right in and adapt just like the other players the Raptors added during last season.

Kyle Lowry on James Johnson audio:


 

The fit is also better this time around for Johnson. In the Raptors second unit, the suspect jump shooting of Johnson can be offset by the excellent stretch-four abilities of Patrick Patterson and Johnson has the size to handle bigger small forwards at the defensive that Casey has been looking for. Plus Johnson can bring an element of shot blocking the Raptors second unit has needed.

Faulkner nails it when he says,
 

“It was confusing that the Grizzlies publicly announced their midseason-desire to acquire an “athletic wing” when they seemingly had just that in James Johnson.”

“it makes sense for him to return to a team where he’s arguably had the most success and playing time in his career.”

 

About all it will take for Johnson’s return to the Raptors to be a success is to accept coaching and do what he is asked to do, nothing more and nothing less. His obvious talent quickly grew on the fans in Toronto the first time he was there and on a better team with less responsibility this time around, it should shine even brighter. It’s up to him to take advantage of the opportunity.

Once again Ujiri has caught everyone off guard and with unexpected ease, landed the big athletic defensive small forward he said his team needed.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.