There weren't many positives to take away from this past season for the Toronto Raptors, however one bright spot for the team was the play of forward James Johnson. The HQ's Scott Campsall takes a closer look at the hard-working Johnson and argues that what he brings to the table is exactly what this team needs to be successful going forward.
Heading into the season there were a number of question marks surrounding the Toronto Raptors, particularly questions regarding the talent on a team comprised of mostly young, inexperienced or unproven players.
This sentiment could not ring any truer than in the case of forward James Johnson, who despite playing some solid basketball after being acquired just prior to the trade deadline last February, had not proven over an extended period of time that he belonged as a rotation player in the NBA.
The season started rather tumultuously for Johnson as he saw himself relegated to the bench in favor of veteran forward Rasual Butler. Fortunately for Johnson, this experiment lasted only three weeks before Dwane Casey opted to send Butler to the pine, allowing Johnson to reclaim his spot in the starting five.
While his return to the starting lineup was a positive for Johnson himself, his play on the court still left much to be desired. The main flaw in his game—one that continues to plague him to a degree—is his inability to stick the mid-range jumper consistently.
However, this was something that Johnson was aware of, and alongside assistant coach Tom Sterner, made a concerted effort to improve. While he isn’t exactly a dead-eye shooter now, the improvement was evident as the season progressed.
Along with the improved jumper, Johnson also found his niche in the Dinos' lineup as a versatile power forward. This allowed him to play closer to the bucket, while also stretching the defense at times by utilizing his strong ball handling skills and showing off that improved mid range jumper.
Although his season did indeed pickup after that point, it wasn’t without bumps in the road. This is something that Dwane Casey acknowledged prior to the Raptors’ regular season Finale against the New Jersey Nets.
"James Johnson has really made a turn around. He had a little dip there but has really played the game the right way and done a great job since he had a little downturn in the middle of the season and I want to see him continue on that path not revert" Casey said of Johnson’s play over the course of the season.
The bump in the road being referenced by Coach Casey was of course the string of DNP’s that James Johnson received as a result of an undisclosed and rather mysterious issue with the head coach. This is something that Johnson would eventually overcome, returning to the lineup and finishing the season strong after his brief absence for disciplinary purposes.
Despite the somewhat turbulent nature of his season, James Johnson sees this season as necessary for the growth and development of his career.
"this year I think playing from the beginning until the last game and by getting pretty good minutes all I could do was get better, and that’s what I did" Johnson told me prior to the Raptors' home finale. "I took opportunities to get extra shots up and learn the game better with Tom Sterner and I think that it’s just blossoming and I’m feeling more comfortable and everything is slowing down"
As Johnson mentioned, a big part of his development is due to the extra work that he has put in with assistant coach Tom Sterner.
"Oh man, that’s my Guru" Johnson said of the assistant coach. "I respect that man to the fullest and with all my heart. When he tells me to do something I know it’s going to be for the best"
It is this hard work and perseverance that has defined Johnson’s young career to this point. He started as a little-used mid first round pick in Chicago, then moved to the D-League, then back to the Bulls before being traded to Toronto where he has fought to become, and remain a starter for this club.
But, as Johnson points out, his work is far from finished and his off-season will be spent pretty much the same way the season was— putting in extra work and trying to get better.
"Lifting, stay fit, running and just keep the fundamentals of my jump shot. Keep that going, shoot a couple hundred a day and just make sure my form is the same way every time" Johnson responded when asked about his off-season plans.
Despite the uncertainty that continues to surround the Raptors heading into an off-season of immense importance for the club, James Johnson has done about all he can to lay claim to a spot on this roster going forward.
His work ethic and effort level are all a part of a winning mentality that this team needs as they move forward in their quest for the playoffs and James Johnson is one piece that should help them reach that goal. Luckily for the Raptors, he is a piece that is already in place.