Has there ever been a player on the Raptors who's inspired such devotion, in both positive and negative ways, as James Johnson? I don't know. I spent a lot of time this past year thinking and writing about Johnson (as you may have noticed), but I'm still no closer to an answer as to what exactly makes him go.
Two years ago, the Raptors identified a need. The team required a wing player who could guard all of those powerful scorers in the NBA -- your LeBron Jameses, Carmelo Anthonii and Kevin Durants -- and even play some stretch power forward. It wasn't going to be Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carroll was just a whisper on the wind then. So, enter: James Johnson.
Except, somehow, after two years in Toronto -- a period of time that saw Johnson vacillate between reserve forward to starter to forgotten 10th man -- the whole concept of his role never quite turned into anything concrete. How much of that is because of Johnson's own weaknesses as a player and how much of that is because of the changes with the Raptors this past season? Again, we may never really know. Such is the experience of trying to understand Johnson.
Johnson played in 57 games, of which he started 32. In 16.2 minutes per game he put up 5.0 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steal, 0.6 blocks, 0.9 turnovers. He shot 47.5 percent from the field, 30.3 percent from three, and 57.4 percent from the free throw line.
I honestly don't know. I poured over the James Johnson Watch archives for an answer, but unlike last year when there were clear games when Johnson was at his best, I came up empty. That said, here:
December 20, 2015 vs. Sacramento Kings
In 32 minutes Johnson had 14 points on some sweet 7-for-11 shooting, to go along with six rebounds, an assist, two steals and a block. He also missed both of his three point attempts for the game. This is simultaneously the quintessential Johnson stat line, his highest point total on the season, and indicative of his entire time in Toronto: the Raptors ultimately lost this game.
I refuse to pick a worst James Johnson game. I refuse!
I know this is a cop out, especially after I did the same thing for Bebe, but really with Johnson the question is always the same. Did he have a positive, negative or negligible impact on the game? When Johnson was pressed into starting duty, an invisible effect wasn't the worst thing that could happen. Someone had to play those minutes after all. Any positive impact was gravy, even if you yearned for him to play consistently well. The problem was all those 0-for games, or times when Johnson would actively hurt the team.
An example: Against the Sixers (an objectively bad team) in December, Johnson had a nice all around game: 9 points, 50% shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, etc. But then he'd get burned again and again on the perimeter by the likes of Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington. I mean, come on, buddy!
Strengths and Weaknesses
+ A strong and versatile one-on-one defender
+ Very good finisher in the post
+ Better court vision than he's often given credit for
+ An underrated positive presence in the locker room, particularly with the younger players on the Raptors
- Inconsistent, inconsistent, inconsistent, and, oh yeah, inconsistent
- If only he could shoot 3s reliably...
- The bottom line on Johnson, sadly, will always be that he can give you some special things once in awhile but he'll also subtract just as much with a blown off-ball defensive assignment, a poor decision in the open court, or just a bad shot. God love him, though.
Role Next Season
Johnson's contract is up with the Raptors now and it seems incredibly unlikely he'll be back. In a sense, he's become expendable for the team -- with his obvious replacement DeMarre Carroll on a long term contract and Patrick Patterson emerging as just as valuable and versatile a defender.
That said, it also seems incredibly likely that Johnson will easily snag a spot on a different team. He has value as a player who can fit the 3/4 spot (even with his lack of outside shooting) because of his defensive, ball-handling, and finishing ability. Also, as I've alluded to, there's an under-reported value to Johnson's presence on an NBA team. The Raptors put him in the proximity of its younger players and it's clear that he likes that role. Johnson was a steady presence at Raptors 905 games, and after practice he could most often be found playing 3-on-3 with the team's youngsters. Johnson may yet become a valuable mentor/player coach in his dotage. It's just a shame, to a certain extent, that it probably won't be with the Raptors.
A GIF to Sum It All Up