James Johnson will not play much this season for the Toronto Raptors. Despite a readily apparent skill set, there are just as many readily apparent reasons for this: Johnson is a career 26 percent shooter from three in a league where shooting from the wing is a necessity, he freelances too much on defense, coach Dwane Casey may just not like him. Toronto has a new solid option at the three-spot with DeMarre Carroll and a strange logjam at power forward. All signs point to Johnson being enclosed in "break in case of emergency" glass and sitting on the bench a lot.
Last season, Johnson spent time at both forward spots for the Raptors, playing in 70 games (including 17 starts). His highlights from that year can be conjured quickly: the shot against the Spurs, that dunk on poor Andre Drummond. Throughout, Johnson played with a calm demeanour that was somehow both reckless and zen. He would stand across from LeBron James and wait. He would nonchalantly take any poor fool into the post and score. He would run the break and everyone, save him, would tense in anticipation of what he might try to do. When it worked, Johnson looked unstoppable. He appears to play basketball with a studied indifference, as if he knows something no one else does.
Johnson, at 28, is entering his seventh year in the league. He's bounced around a few teams (including the Raptors, previously) and spent a little time in the D-League. After a year in the grindhouse of Memphis he returned to Toronto, returned to the same coach, Casey, he'd butted heads with as a younger man. The Raptors felt they needed more toughness at forward, someone who could play bigger and tougher than his size at the 4. In his first year back with Toronto, he averaged 7.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks in 19.6 minutes, while shooting 59 percent from the floor (though only 22 percent from 3). More significantly, a folk legend continued to grow around Johnson. Old teammates would recall his breakdancing ability, or a video of him doing a standing backflip would emerge. We would be reminded of his background in mixed-martial arts, his black belt, the teachings passed on by his family. The lore surrounding Johnson had him as the solution to all the team's problems. Fans were irate when he barely got off the bench in the Raptors' embarrassing sweep out of the playoffs last season. Couldn't the coaching staff see what Johnson could do?
I play rec league basketball on Sundays, and a bit of pick-up when I can on Saturdays. I'm not very good, though I like to project a certain confidence (which wains depending on the quality of my play). When it's not working, when guys are cutting off my every attempt at the rim, when I'm tossing up air balls, when turnovers mount, it's easy to get frustrated. In my head, I know what I want my body to do, where I want the ball to go, but the difference between that and reality is maddening. My game turns tentative, I can feel my teammates getting impatient. The ball is suddenly even harder to handle. The game slips away.
My rec league team won this past weekend in a hard fought one-point game with a few lead changes. I had my moments, but still managed to knuckle a few shots and turn the ball over too many times. It was infuriating. Two of the guys on the other team had my number, refused my attempts to muscle past them. I started picking up my dribble too soon, forcing passes. I'd maintain a loud confident front, but still feel like I had let my teammates down. Knowing I had to write this piece later, I thought about James Johnson careening down the middle of the court, not a care in the world.
The first thing you notice when you see Johnson in the locker room, slumped low in his chair, is the tattoo. Naymin, in big block letters across his neck, announces his infant son. He talks in a low voice, except when joking with nearby teammates (usually Terrence Ross or the now-departed Greivis Vasquez). If Johnson's new role on the team, behind DeMarre, and Luis Scola, and Patrick Patterson and maybe even Anthony Bennett, bothers him, he hasn't shown it. If it angers him to have a coach who only seems to trust him as a last ditch effort, we don't know. If he's aware of always being the toughest person in any given room, he keeps it to himself. It's easy to wonder why Johnson's basketball career isn't a bigger deal than it is; easier still to wonder what he thinks about it, or if he thinks about it at all.
The biggest weakness of last year's Raptors was defense. They couldn't guard the perimeter, had trouble at the rim, and their best all-around defenders (Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry) wore way down as the season progressed. This year, Toronto has added able-bodied defenders—the aforementioned Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Bismack Biyombo. This is rightly being touted as a good thing. On paper, the Raptors' weaknesses feel far less apparent, as does Johnson's role. I suspect on some days when the team is really rolling--or self-destructing--Johnson's number will be called. Win or lose, he'll play with that same mannered indifference. Then, he'll finish the season and move on, the Raptors presumably declining to offer him a new contract; the idea of James Johnson and the reality never quite meeting where we think.