The Raptors acquired Stanley Johnson and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson to keep their defensive identity intact. The two have not yet lived up to this standard. In a clip that has now made multiple rounds across the Raptors fanbase, Nick Nurse voiced his displeasure with the pair’s defense thus far.
sooo uhh Nick what's been your impression of the new guys so far? pic.twitter.com/MvjjZlmwKb— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) October 16, 2019
What surprised many about the quote is that Nurse did not seem concerned about their fit offensively. “Whatever you do on the other end, you are going to get opportunities just because of who you’re on the floor with,” he said.
This ran counter to public expectation: many figured the two to contribute right away defensively while being precarious fits on offense due to their lack of outside shooting. However, upon closer look, Nurse’s point about RHJ and Johnson being helped by surrounding offensive talent holds weight.
While the Raptors would love if the two could shoot, they may not need them to, as unlike most teams, they have two centres who can operate from behind the arc. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol have not played much alongside Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson in preseason, but it is clear how the two bigs’ shooting could unlock the new acquisitions’ offensive arsenals.
This feat of roster construction is one thing to keep in mind as we ask the question: How have Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson fit with the Raptors so far on the offensive end?
After spending the second quarter of the first preseason game hounding James Harden with mixed results (it is James Harden, after all), Hollis-Jefferson assumed fourth quarter ball handling duties while most rotation players from both teams sat. He whipped solid passes in transition and out of the post, and showed flashes of quick decision making.
This was not a revelation. Hollis-Jefferson played point guard in high school and thrived as a playmaker when deployed as a small-ball five in Brooklyn. The Nets came back from 25 points to win a March game against Sacramento last season with Hollis-Jefferson at centre. He was a catalyst on the offensive end through his decisive drives and sharp passes.
Of course, it’s easier for Hollis-Jefferson to play centre when the opposing five is Harry Giles or the undersized Marvin Bagley III. However, against most other bigs, Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis were necessary. Neither Allen nor Davis could score from outside, and mucked up driving lanes that Hollis-Jefferson could otherwise use. As a result, Hollis-Jefferson saw his minutes reduced because he could not provide enough offense as a perimeter threat to make his defense worth it.
Due to the floor spacing ability of Gasol and Ibaka, Hollis-Jefferson will be afforded the opportunity to create out of short rolls and faceups while defending the perimeter on the other end. We’ve seen this dynamic at play already with Siakam, who often plays a role similar to that of a big man on offense, but guards opposing perimeter players.
Where he differs from Siakam on offense is his sheer inability to shoot threes. While Siakam is not at his best when deployed outside the arc, he can play this role, which increases the flexibility of lineups with Siakam at the four. When Hollis-Jefferson plays the four, it means Toronto’s offense runs at least partially through him so that he does not cramp floor spacing.
Johnson’s projection with the Raptors is less clear. Unlike Hollis-Jefferson, he has not flashed quick decision making or high court awareness throughout his career. He does not figure to operate as a cog within an offense who can keep the ball moving.
On past teams, Johnson flashed a solid first step as well as good dribble coordination on the move. However, any optimism that this part of his game would flourish in a superior offensive environment quickly vanished once preseason started. He’s gone 1-for-10 from the field so far, and most advantages he created off the bounce with his athleticism were mitigated by his predictability.
While he could fare better as a faceup scorer surrounded by more shooting, Johnson does not look good enough at it to warrant taking the ball out of his more talented teammates’ hands. Perhaps his dribble attacks will be a viable last resort for an offense, but it is hard to claim how much value this would truly add. His only path to having a positive impact on offense is likely from developing his outside shot. Unlike Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson will need more than a renewed focus on defense to earn consistent minutes.