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Raptors New Offensive Threat: Amir Johnson

Amir Johnson 1The Toronto Raptors have a new offensive threat this season in Amir Johnson. A starter since opening night, Johnson is scoring in double-digits and has 10 or more points in 6 of his 8 games thus far. Obscured by Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and the up-and-coming Jonas Valanciunas, Johnson is fourth in team scoring and first in field goal percentage on the Raptors.

“I feel pretty good. I feel my stamina has definitely picked up,” Johnson said. “I think I have made some improvements. I feel that I have played the same way every year – (but) added some improvements. There are some games where you have your ups and downs, but when I go out there, I try to give my all. My motive is to always go out there and play hard.”

No one has ever questioned Johnson’s work ethic or effort in Toronto. Even when the howls from the media came down about the 5-year $30 million contract the Raptors bestowed upon him in 2010, it was his talent level that was being questioned and not the effort Johnson put out on the court. Over the course of that contract, however, Johnson has laid to rest any questions about his ability to up his game.

Johnson was the last 18-year-old player drafted into the NBA and he was a skinny 205 lb undersized power forward when he arrived in Detroit as the 56th overall pick in 2005. He was still on the light side when the Pistons traded him to Milwaukee who flipped him to Toronto in the summer of 2009. However, Johnson has worked on body continuously since he arrived and he isn’t skinny and he doesn’t play undersized any longer.

“Just being in the league for so long, I am able to hold my ground and get a couple of stops,” Johnson said. “You are not going to stop (elite players) or anybody in this league all the time, but I am able to hold my ground. I have put on some pounds and that comes with years of working and putting on weight. I am not skinny anymore.”

One of the things Johnson has been working on is expanding the range on his jump shot. Three years ago, the three-point shot was not part of Johnson’s arsenal at all. Two years ago he hit 2-5 on the season, last year it was 5-13 and so far this year it’s 5-14 in 8 games. There have been some complaints about Johnson’s willingness to put up 1 or 2 uncontested three-pointers a game, but he works on them in practice and is proving he can knock them down in games. So far, the number of threes he’s attempted hasn’t negatively impacted his field goal percentage and Johnson is confident in his ability to make those shots.

“Just having a lot of confidence,” Johnson said. “I’d say 80-85 percent is confidence because you know you have been playing the game for so long, you have the confidence knowing you can shoot those shots, knowing you can make those shots. Knowing when to go in and take the layup and knowing when to do the right stuff.”

It is experience that gives Johnson the confidence to expand his game. Even though Johnson is only 26 years old, this is his ninth NBA season.

“(Experience) is where the confidence definitely builds (from),” Johnson said. “Just doing things over and over again. Doing it in the game and going over the film and seeing yourself doing it, that’s where your confidence builds up (from).”

Johnson is averaging 10.6 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 assists to start the current season and these stats are all on pace to become career highs. His personal foul rate continues the long slow decline from the days when it was unlikely Johnson could stay on the floor long enough without fouling to be starter to the point where his personal fouls are not a major concern. He is still most effective rolling to the rim for layups and dunks or cleaning up other players misses, but his expanded shooting range gives him another dimension as a scorer and as a floor spreader for his teammates.

The energy guy the Raptors acquired in 2009 has evolved into an all-around player and legitimate scoring threat and at just 26-years-old, it’s likely we haven’t seen the best from Johnson yet.

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.