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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,