James Johnson’s Breakout Season
The Toronto Raptors most important objective this season was the continued growth and development of their young players and hopefully a breakout season from somebody. After a little more than a third of the way, it’s time to acknowledge James Johnson’s progress.
Since breaking into the starting line-up 14 games ago, the combo-forward has been putting up 10.6 points on 45.3 percent shooting to go with five rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 1.6 blocks in a little over 26 minutes per game. Not bad for the bust out of Chicago who couldn’t get minutes with the Bulls last season and was traded for a late first-round pick the Bulls didn’t even want to keep.
“James is growing,” said head coach Dwane Casey. “He works everyday on his offensive game. He is doing a good job of seeing the floor, passing the basketball, knowing the right opportunities and it hasn’t been easy. In the exhibition season he was a little wild turning it over, but he’s done a great job honing his game in and making it simple, making it a more efficient game. That’s what this season is about. That type of progress that you see within James, I see within James. That type of growth as an offensive player, and defensively, he is doing a good job too.”
It could be argued Johnson was the quickest to pick up on Casey’s new defensive schemes and have the most obvious impact at the defensive end of the floor for the Raptors. Johnson already has 12 multi-block games this season, including a six-block effort in a win over the Jazz in Utah. He also had a six-steal game in the home opener versus Indiana and has been leading the Raptors in steals and blocked shots since the preseason.
The coaching change in Toronto has helped Johnson’s development and the apparently wasted season-and-a-half in Chicago wasn’t quite as bad for him as it seemed.
“I was a scorer in college,” said Johnson. “Help side defense wasn’t really in my vocabulary at that time. I knew I could guard my guy and think that I won the battle, but my help side was horrible. I’d have guys getting back cuts on me and I wouldn’t get there in time to help out and that’s something that being in Chicago taught me. I learned where the help side was and how to read the defense. Sitting and watching Luol Deng it made it easier. In Toronto we play the same defense I ran in college. I already knew about helping the elbow out so then all the sudden it was like second nature. After two years of this defense, then going to a different defense in Chicago, and then I went back to my college defense, I knew where all my mistakes were. It made it easier for me to know when to recover and react.”
Johnson has also proven his versatility as a combo forward by starting at both the small and power forward spots. With leading scorer Andrea Bargnani injured, Casey has effectively used Johnson at the four in small line-ups and he has shown the ability to guard some of the better power forwards in the game.
“It’s a spot that I’m willing to fill,” Johnson said. “As soon as you learn how to play the four it’s a piece of cake. It gets easier to be comfortable there because you know that you’re faster than the guy guarding you or you know that he’s not going to close out as fast as a small forward would.
“My father always told me that technique overwhelms strength. If you have the right technique you can see the smallest guys bring down the biggest guys to their backs because the smaller guy has the right technique to take him down. I play technique over strength all the time. I like to guard the hips. If he’s trying to back me down I guard the hips so he’s forced to use his upper body instead of using his legs to back me down.”
Although Raptors President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo had coveted Johnson since the 2009 NBA Draft, there were concerns about the 6’ 8” forward’s conditioning. Johnson weighed 257 lbs at draft camp and expectations were things had gotten worse in Chicago.
“I gained weight in college because we didn’t have the different weight training depending on where you were in the season, it was the same lift every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as it was in the offseason. You’re going to get bigger with muscle. Going from college to my rookie season I was thinking I was going to play more minutes, and because I was still eating the same things I was eating in college but not getting any playing time, it caused me to get more husky. It was a little bit of an issue, but as soon as it got brought to my attention, it was never an issue again. Bryan Colangelo and Dwane Casey wondered how I would look coming in from a long lockout, but obviously I passed and I came into the season in great shape. I’m at 230 right now, 233 actually.”
Another concern about Johnson was whether he could become a viable scoring option in the NBA. Seen primarily as a defensive small forward, Johnson’s three-point shot looked doubtful last season and he came into camp this season with what only could be called a broken jump shot. His shooting had gotten worse during the lockout.
“Not to say that I wasn’t working out and shooting jumpers, in fact I was shooting hundreds and hundreds of jumpers every day. When you’re shooting a hundred jumpers the wrong way it tends to start feeling good. You start hitting shots against dummies or in pick-up games against college kids. When you get to a league where everyone’s fast, everyone can jump high and everybody has good defense, you start to figure out where your shot really is.
“(Assistant coach) Tom Stern has helped me get to where I’m not bringing the ball behind my head anymore, which was messing up my judgment of how high I had to throw it. It became more of a throw then a shot. I would guide it more then I would shoot it. I’m proud to say that I’ve built it from the ground up and my shot is a Tom Stern jumper. It looks better, it feels better, I’m getting it off quicker and I’m making shots.”
At the start of the season, Johnson was only taking 5.4 shots per game and only connecting on 35.7 percent of them. Since starting, Johnson averages 10 shots per game and has become a solid second or third option in most offensive sets.
“I definitely think that I am a scorer and I’m always going to be a scorer. I don’t think anybody can stop me when I have the ball. It’s more of the confidence in my coach to let me do it. In college they gave me the ultimate confidence so I wasn’t afraid to try anything or to do anything and that led to buckets falling. Right now I have enough confidence from coach to let me shoot every now and again, but that’s not my role on this team. If I keep working with Tom I’m sure everybody will find out who the real James Johnson is. I can play on both sides of the floor and I can get you any kind of bucket you want.”
Johnson has shown himself to be an effective defensive forward for Casey this season, and as his jump shot has improved, he has become a viable offensive weapon as well. Plus Casey’s confidence in Johnson is growing at both ends of the floor as evidenced by the 18 shots Johnson took during the win over Boston recently. Some may say that a breakout season by Johnson is too soon to call, but the 24-year-old’s confidence is sky-high and he is doing all the right things to show he is not just a prospect anymore.
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