My personal Stanley Circle is now complete.
Before the season began I bravely (foolishly?) took on Raptors HQ high muck-a-muck Daniel Reynolds’ challenge to write a player preview for Johnson. At the time, I thought if Johnson could be the latest shooting victory for the Raps player development staff there were enough tools for him to be interesting. However, it probably wasn’t going to happen.
That’s pretty much where we ended up after the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors season. For the year, Johnson put up a line of 4.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 16.5 minutes per game. He also put up a total of 1.2 “stocks” steals plus blocks in that time as well. To his credit, Johnson graded out as one of the Raptors’ better defenders — but he had one of the worst impacts on the team’s offense.
That interesting skill set was still there though. According to Cleaning the Glass, Johnson was one of the best forwards in the league at generating assists when he had the ball (his low usage rate hides that skill). He also was rarely set-up, using his dribble skills to get the vast majority of his own buckets. Johnson also showed an ability to leverage his handle, and sturdy 6’5” frame, into getting fouls — finishing well above average, by drawing whistles on over 10-percent of his shot attempts.
Johnson’s defense also showed promise. He was an absolute menace at swiping the ball — his 2.3 percent steal rate was second among NBA forward’s behind the Thunder’s Darius Miller — while his block rate ranked in the upper half of the league at the position.
Unfortunately, while those skills were present, Johnson’s shooting still really wasn’t. Sure, he set career highs for three-point shooting, and effective field-goal percentage, it’s just they both still kind of stunk — those marks came in at a modest 33.1 percent (excluding half-court heaves), and 49.1 percent, respectively. Cleaning The Glass notes that the former ranks Johnson in the bottom third in the league for forwards, while the latter puts him in the 18th-percentile.
Oh, and remember how I said Johnson was good at getting fouled? He almost totally neutered that skill by being putrid at finishing through contact — completing the and-1 less than half the time — a rate that was in the 26th-percentile for his position.
Like much of Johnson’s presence on the court, there’s still a bright spot to consider here. There is indeed a glimmer of hope that Johnson’s shooting could still come around: he hit a healthy 80 percent of his free throws.
At the end of the day, despite playing in 61 games for the Raptors in 2020-21, Johnson rarely got a chance to show what he might be capable of. Johnson barely topped the thousand-minute mark for the season and, as I mentioned in my Raptors season wrap-up, when he was on the floor he seemed very hesitant to try to force any action — posting per-minute lows in almost every category across the ball.
At this stage of his career it feels that while Johnson has done enough on defense to earn a league-minimum deal somewhere, the best move might be to head to Europe and see if he can find a higher-usage role that would allow him to hone, and then showcase those diverse skills.
Stanley’s Best Moment
Much like last season, Johnson decided to leave his most impactful night for late in the year as Johnson put up a monster, 35-10-5 against the Bulls in his misguided attempt to have a “Ben Uzoh” game and possibly cost the Raptors a draft position (although if the Bulls end up winning the draft lottery, we’ll realize SJ was playing some 3D chess).
Watching this game you’d think Johnson was destined to be a real bench weapon on a good team. Of course, that’s what we said after last year’s Bubble stand-out performances too.
Stanley’s Worst Moment
I don’t know if you can toss a “worst” moment at Johnson — there really weren’t many games in which he played key minutes, and the list of games in which he played key minutes and was expected to do anything but play defense and take a wide-open shot is basically none.
Still, if forced to pull one out, I suppose it has to be that somehow, someway, Johnson playing twenty minutes in the Raptors’ record-setting 53-point beat-down over the Golden State Warriors and still ending up a minus-seven. There is no greater summary of the mystery of Johnson’s impact (or non-impact) than that.
With his contract coming off the books now in Toronto, it seems definite Johnson will be gone from the Raptors for 2021-22, but will some other team try to make something of him By all accounts, Johnson is one of the nicer guys in the NBA, a hard worker, and someone who definitely seems just as happy as you or I would be to get to play in the greatest basketball league in the world. Despite all that, I hope Johnson does head overseas.
Maybe he never puts the skills together at a level that allows him to be anything more than a deep bench guy in the NBA, but it would be pretty cool to see that smile of his holding up a EuroLeague Championship trophy.