Toronto Raptors' Game-Changer - James Johnson

In their February 14th loss to the New York Knicks, James Johnson played only 17 minutes, a good chunk below his season average of nearly 25.

The reason for this was foul trouble as Johnson picked up his fifth with about nine minutes left in the game, forcing Toronto Raptors' coach Dwane Casey to sub him out.

At that point in the match, the Raptors were leading the Knicks by a score of 78 to 72 but after that point, it was all New York.

The Knicks outscored the Raps 18 to 9 post Johnson's departure, and Jeremy Lin hit...well...we know the rest.

When SB Nation asked its bloggers to pen something regarding a "game-changer" for the basketball team you cover, James Johnson was the first player to spring to mind. Obviously others like Jose Calderon and the currently injured Andrea Bargnani fit this role too, but Johnson I felt was the most interesting case considering the low expectations I had for him going into this season.

Sure, he showed some glimpses late last season after his acquisition from the Chicago Bulls, but I simply wasn't convinced that he would end up being much more than a Julian Wright type; a player with amazing physical attributes, who simply didn't possess the basic basketball skill-set to remain in the league for long.

After all, when the Dinos acquired the former lottery pick last year, I wrote:

More importantly, I just don't think Johnson is much more than a D League player.

Hmmm.

My rationale at the time was that most swingmen at 24 "are who they are" and I was more content to gamble on an unknown, Miami's draft pick sent to Chicago in return for Johnson, than take on a known player, but known in the "we're pretty sure this is all he's going to be" sense. Plus, the 28th spot in the draft happens to be a bit of a "hot spot" for successful NBA players with personnel like Tony Parker, Wayne Ellington, Donte Green, Tiago Splitter and the Raptors' own Leandro Barbosa, all being taken at that spot over the last nine years.

But let's look back on that trade now.

The Miami Heat look to have found a diamond in the rough once more with Cleveland State alum Norris Cole, but when you compare the impact the two have had on their respective teams this season, there's no question Johnson comes out on top.

Johnson's PER is still below the league average of 15 (13.4) but when you adjust for position and look at his performance at the power forward spot instead of the 3, his PER jumps from 10.4 at the SF spot, to 16.2 at the PF. As TSN.ca's Tim Chisholm recently noted, Johnson has been very effective as a power forward for Toronto, able to use his size and athleticism to be a factor at both ends, even against bigger opponents.

Contrast that to Cole who's PER is only 10.7 overall, and who doesn't offer the same impact on offense or defence as Johnson.

In fact it's on the defensive end that Johnson is truly a game-changer.

He's a very good rebounder at either the 3 or 4 spot, and averages nearly a block and a half per game, tops amongst "small forwards" and good for a top 20 spot in the entire league. His ability to erase defensive mistakes by his teammates has had a game-changing impact on numerous matches this season and going back to the match against the Knicks I mentioned to start this post, to me, his foul trouble was a key reason Toronto lost that game. The team just didn't have someone to make those hustle and wow plays that so often have spurred the Raptors on a nice run.

I'm not going to oversell Johnson here though.

On a good team, he's still not starter material unless surrounded by dead-eye offensive talent as he's sporting a 43 per cent field goal mark and a 32 per cent accuracy level from downtown. In close, late game situations, he's not always an asset either thanks to his putrid 56 per cent free-throw percentage.

As a result, we're talking about some rather poor effective field goal and true shooting percentages (45 and 46 per cent respectively) and until those improve, it's hard to seriously compare him to other similar multi-position threats like Shawn Marion and Josh Smith.

But that's not to say he can't get there.

Already the awkward jump shot he's rebuilding with Raptors' Assistant Coach Tom Sterner, looks a lot more comfortable and accurate, and as he continues to get key minutes under Dwane Casey, the hope is that his offensive game (especially his decision-making with the ball) continues to improve. Already he looks to be a solid contributor off the pine as a 7th or 8th man on a good team, able to man multiple positions and lock-down opponents on D.

But should he begin to knock down shots with regularity, and continue to improve his all-around game, we could be talking about a real steal for the Raps in terms of being acquired for a 28th pick, and a key part of Toronto's future as the team continues its rebuild towards NBA relevance.

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