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.
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.
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.