This was a guest post from Atique Virani, who may or may not have just been trolling Matt Moore.
Before this season, the book on Amir Johnson had already been written. He was destined to be a really good bench big whose lack of offensive skills outside of finishing right at the rim would prevent him from ever being an effective starter. Then, something strange happened when Andrea Bargnani was injured. More offensive responsibility was placed on Amir, and he responded beautifully. He maintained his efficiency at the rim while flashing increased ability to score from farther away. He also developed a nice rapport with the (sadly departed) Ed Davis to form one of the more underrated interior passing duos in the league. His growth this season, and his youth (he’s just 25, despite this being his 8th season in the league), beg the question: is Amir Johnson a viable long term starter for the Raptors?
His boxscore stats, even when adjusted for playing time and pace, don’t show any drastic improvement in his game. He’s rebounding and assisting at about the same pace as he always has, and his efficiency has dropped slightly, according to Hoopdata. The biggest change is in his usage, which is the highest it’s been since his 2nd year in the league, when he played in just eight games. That’s the thing about Amir. His minute and pace-adjusted statistics have always been stellar. The problem with him has always been staying on the court and maintaining his production in longer minutes. And that’s where he’s improved this season.
Amir’s defense has been underrated for a few years now. He was an integral cog in Casey’s schemes last year, and this season, especially when he’s played with Valanciunas, he’s been excellent. He still fouls too often but he’s improved his foul rate as the season’s gone on, according to Basketball Reference, possibly as a result of not having to cover for poor perimeter defenders as much. That rapport with Valanciunas is especially promising. According to NBA.com, Toronto’s Defensive Rating when those two are on the court together would rank as the best in the league by a ridiculous margin. Unfortunately, Casey hasn’t played the two together nearly as much as we’d like to see. I’m hopeful that as the season descends more and more into meaninglessness, we see more of this potential front court of the future. They’re both mobile, athletic, long defenders who are willing and able to provide smart help on drives to the rim, and Jonas’ ability to help frees Amir up and allows him to match up against similarly sized players.
I noted that Amir’s defense is sadly underrated, at least by non-local media. His offense is even more unheralded. Before the Gay trade, he formed one of the very best P&R duos in the league with Jose Calderon. The Raptors don’t run the P&R as much since acquiring Rudy, but Amir remains one of the most efficient P&R finishers in the league (joining him, promisingly, is Valanciunas). He doesn’t have the same rapport with Lowry, and Kyle isn’t as good a P&R craftsman as Jose, but they’re both athletic, and the chemistry between the two will come.
Amir’s compensated for the drop in P&R play by becoming a lot better in the post and in isolation. In previous years, when Amir would catch the ball at a standstill with a defender between him and the basket, he’d usually pass the ball off, or, even worse, turn the ball over or miss a wild shot. This season, he’s added a legitimate post move to his nearly barren arsenal, a spin move transitioning to a hook shot that he feels comfortable releasing anywhere within 10 feet. And it’s working, according to Basketball Reference, as he’s shooting nearly 70% on his hook shots. His jump shot remains at a merely passable 35%, however. Amir will never be the type of guy who can change a defense’s complexion with his post play but this improvement means teams cannot ignore him in non-P&R situations. The attention he draws now is integral to Toronto’s offense.
One last improvement that might point to a future as a starter: Amir’s passing. His big- to-big passes with Boss Davis have drawn attention nationally, even being noted by such luminaries as Grantland’s Zach Lowe, and for good reason. Amir’s become one of the better passing big men in the league. According to Hoopdata, Amir’s Assist Rate is better than that of All Star level forwards David West, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. Amir still turns the ball over a lot but the improvement in passing is promising for his future.
Amir’s intangibles this season have been immaculate as always. He turns his ankle more than Stephen Curry, it seems, but he’s still one of the hardest working, toughest players in the league. He’s that rare commodity – a hustle player who also has legitimate basketball skill. And he’s only 25. There’s really no reason to believe he can’t be a legitimate starting calibre power forward for the next handful of years.
This was a guest post from Atique VIrani, who may or may not have just been trolling Matt Moore.