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.
“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.
“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.”