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Power Forward Friday: Hey, James Johnson is good now

Our weekly search for the ideal power forward arrives at a familiar face, and an unlikely candidate.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game Six Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Enjoying the success of old friends, for me, is oddly bittersweet. You support people you don’t talk to through likes on Facebook, hoping that the good intentions mask a pang of jealousy you feel deep inside. Your old friends are doing great, but when will you do great? What is greatness exactly? Are we measuring the right things when we get introspective?

The Situation

While we wait for answers to these deep, depressing questions, let’s talk about our large adult son who recently moved out: James Johnson. After two seasons with the Raptors — the first spent with fans clamoring for his playing time, the second spent in a state of permanently #under-utilized — Johnson is playing with the Miami Heat (HEAT, if you will).

An old hat on a young squad, Johnson is fitting in pretty darn well. He’s putting up career-best numbers through 19 games off the bench, with per-36 digits of 15.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists. Last night, he had one of the best games of his career, with 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting. He had the HEAT’s winning play too, putting the damn ball on the floor and driving for a dunk like the spirit of LeBron James had entered his body.

Johnson has always been... well, an enigma. It’s part of why Dwane Casey never trusted him with a real rotation spot, saving him for the “Break In Case of Emergency” role now assigned to Norman Powell. He was flighty on defense, lacked focus on offense, and couldn’t string together positive outings.

He was undoubtedly a good dude, though. He famously worked out with Bruno Caboclo every day in his rookie season, before Raptors 905 got off the ground. He was well-loved in the Raptors locker room, earning a line up of daps after the Raptors beat the HEAT earlier this year. To his credit, he seems happier now too. After the game, he said the Miami situation is the best he’s had so far in his career.

James Johnson. He’s cocking that joint back and banging on life itself. He’s doing what many didn’t think was possible: playing his best basketball at 29 years of age.

So, what if he came back? What if the new James Johnson could return to Toronto, don the red hair, and renew our faith in the power forward position? Let’s roll through this analysis and see if it makes sense.

Basketball Fit

James Johnson struggled with the Raptors because Toronto’s offense demands players at his position make open shots. While his driving game was excellent — methodical, strong, with great finishes — he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn door outside 20 feet. He shot just 22% from three in his first season with the Raptors, and just 30% last year.

Now, though? He’s up to 35% on three pointers and 48% from the field. I present you with the most James Johnson shot chart ever:

Johnson is also the team’s best defender for anyone playing 20 minutes or more, with a rating of 99.0. A 250-pound small forward, the dude can still bring it in one-on-one scenarios. An improved rating also shows he’s getting into team defense, which was always a troubling aspect of his game in Toronto.

Emotional Fit

Everyone loves him! He died his hair red once!

The Verdict

Okay, so this post is less about James Johnson being an actual solution than it is me wanting to talk about James Johnson. I’m happy for him. It’s good that he found somewhere where he can be properly #utilized.

That said, while I give him the thumbs up on Facebook, there’s still that familiar pang of jealousy — that lingering idea that if the Raptors could’ve somehow kept him, this version of James Johnson would look mighty good suiting up at power forward.