James Johnson, the most underwhelming and, at the same time, understandable signings made this summer. Ujiri dipped into his back pocket for spare change, threw it in the air, and out of the bushes leaps James Johnson to snuff the pack of quarters before they even hit the ground. There’s your defensive specialist for you, there’s the guy that’ll stop next year’s Joe Johnson, and that’s the guy that’ll push Ross for minutes.

For a $2.5 million salary, a player of Johnson’s caliber is about what you’re going to get and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the constraints Ujiri was operating under. Over the last couple years Johnson has matured into a different player than what Raptors fans may remember from his time between 2010-12. He remains a horrendous three-point shooter, shooting a woeful 25% while taking a career-high 1.7 threes per game last season, meaning the rumours that he’s here for his floor stretchability are vastly exaggerated (even from corner positions as seen below).

He remains a player who will only be as good as the system he plays in. Put him in a situation where he’s allowed freedom on offense, and he’s liable to kill you with his propensity to look for his shot, like he did under Sacramento’s lax playbook. Put him in a defined role, like Memphis did, and you get a player that moves very well without the ball, has a very serviceable pump-fake, and can finish while contested, at least when he’s attacking from the right side of the rim. Despite being a poor three-point shooter, there is one area on the court where he’s above the league average and that’s on the right wing. If the Raptors are able to position him on the court well, he may be able to space the floor just a little, but it’s not something you can count on. In that sense, he’s very much like Landry Fields, a guy whose offense you cannot rely on but whose defense can be valuable. The following play against the Spurs is a good example of the type of off-the-ball movement that Johnson has improved in over the last year:

Comparing him to John Salmons, he’s a worse three-point shooter but moves better without the ball. He’s more liable to cut to the rim from the weak-side than Salmons (partially because he’s now realized that he’s a bad shooter) , and is physically stronger than the latter when facing contact or pressure.

Where Johnson beats out the incumbent Fields and the departed Salmons is his defense. Once he realized and accepted that no matter how much he tried, it wasn’t his offense that was going to cut him an NBA cheque, Johnson made a concerted effort to focus on the defensive side of his game, where his 6’9” frame comes in handy, and was greatly helped in this regard by Memphis’s defensive setup.

With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph manning the paint behind him, Johnson was able to play tight defense on the perimeter, knowing that there was cover waiting in case he was beat. His long arms, good stance in isolation situations, and ability to play the correct angles was an asset to Dave Joerger’s 8th ranked defense which was comfortable funnelling drives to the rim. Applying pressure on the perimeter knowing that there’s a second line waiting is a comforting thought for a coach, and a formula that the Thunder follow to good effect with a healthy Serge Ibaka. Memphis takes that approach to the extreme.

This is not to discount Johnson’s defensive qualities, he affords his coach the luxury of slowing down an opposing threat without having to structure the whole team’s defense around it. Though the narrative has been played out, the Raptors against Joe Johnson and the Nets was a good example for a need for this type of player. We saw how valuable a defensive asset Trevor Ariza was to the 7th ranked Washington defense as he guarded three positions on his way to disrupting offenses. Even he benefited from having a strong defensive frontcourt to bail out any over-commitments on the perimeter, now he departs to Houston where Dwight Howard plays a similar role. Something tells me Ariza knows what to seek out in a team to make himself appear better.

Back to Johnson, though, in Toronto he’s going to have to adjust his game to be less aggressive on the wing since the Raptors don’t have the rim-protection Memphis does. Instead of blocks and at-rim contests, the Raptors (who were 23rd in blocks) rely on wing players stepping inside and big men stepping out to pick up charges and divert play. It’s a strategy that relies much more on timing, team communication, and game awareness, rather than pure athletic ability and reach. As much as Johnson’s defensive value is in covering key offensive players in one-on-one situations, it’s how he fits into this fluid Raptors defense that will ultimately determine whether he’s successful or not.

Johnson should also, at the very least, influence Raptors practices very positively. One of my major peeves in the Bryan Colangelo era was the lack of depth at key positions, which meant that practices for players like Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon were a relative breeze. Adding a lengthy defensive player like Johnson into the mix means players such as DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross will have to work that much harder in practice, thus getting more out of them. Once Rudy Gay was traded there wasn’t any real competition for Ross on his way to the starting lineup. While this helped get Ross more playing time and develop faster, it also meant that he didn’t have to look over his shoulder much which led to him getting a little lackadaisical at times. Johnson isn’t going to uproot Ross, but he will make him fight for his place harder than a combination of Salmons and Fields would, which in turn should fuel Ross’s engine that bit more.

The Raptors have a rotation where they don’t need to hide many players on defense, which makes lineup construction that much easier for Dwane Casey.  The only players you can make a case for being bad defenders are Greivis Vasquez and DeMar DeRozan.  The former can pose problems on account of his size, while the latter, well, the latter is a bad defender whose offensive value far exceeds his defensive shortcomings.  Replacing Salmons with the seven-year younger and two inches taller Johnson means that the Raptors rotation has improved defensively, affording Dwane Casey options.  Johnson’s size and rebounding would lend itself well to small-ball lineups, or in situations where defensive pressure needs to be increased.  Presently, the best Raptors defensive lineup is Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, and possibly, Jonas Valanciunas or Bebe Nogueira, depending on if you’re looking for rebounding or shot-blocking.  Conditional on how far along Ross is with his offense, that is a lineup that could be used to change games from a defensive standpoint without sacrificing too much offense.

James Johnson is the very definition of exploiting a constraint –  a small tweak that could have a large impact.  This James Johnson isn’t about what the previous James Johnson was about:

“Playing defence, being an opportunity scorer, just doing the little things. Every day, practice hard and try to get our guys to the next level with team defence. I’m just more mature about my game. I’m doing the little things, finding my niche nowadays. Getting opportunity to score when I can and if not, don’t worry about the offensive end.”

Defense? Opportunity scorer? Practice hard? Team defense? Little things? Niche? Don’t worry about the offensive end? Those are phrases you never would’ve associated with James Johnson 2010-12.

  • Eunys

    Great article !

  • onemanweave

    Terrific article. Thanks.

    • The Courthawk

      I like the article. There are two questions: Does James Johnson (JJ) gel? And is Ross going to respond positively to a challenge?

      Since the first question is a wait and see answer. Let’s look at the second question.

      So far T Ross has excelled (reletively) only when there has been no pressure.

      – Gay’s leave and t Ross doesn’t have to compete for minutes, he does better.

      – Playoff pressure is piled on, he crumples into a ball and performs a big choke.

      He is still fragile from last year. Plus, I don’t know if Ross is the type of guy that pressure helps.

      Don’t get me wrong. He needs to be pressured and I would have also done this deal. I am just saying that this may not result in Ross scoring buckets. Which may cause people to say JJ isn’t gelling. Which if that was the case, would e unfair to put on JJ.

      If Ross can’t handle the pressure it is a sign thy we have fools gold in him and it’s better to recognize that now.

      Even though I fear this, I hope we get a JJ that does what he is reported to say– the little things. I also hope Ross has grown to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

      • The Courthawk

        It is meant to read, ‘Gay leaves’. Typing on a bad phone. Sorry.

  • Val Jasme

    hope he gels well with the team! #northernuprising

  • jjdynomite

    Great write-up, Arse. I would also add that against solid teams that go small-ball and lack that big, bulky Centre — say Bosh on Miami or Varejao on Cleveland — the Raps’ best defensive 5 would entail shifting Amir to C and playing Kyle, T-Ross, JJ, 2Pat and Amir. I am sure Casey is pleased with how all the off-season moves are turning out with his defense-first mindset.

  • Ds

    Although Johnson is not an offensive juggernaut, he still ended up the season with .552 TS%, which is in line with what Terrence Ross provides (.552 TS%). So, don’t discount his offensive contributions, just because he can’t hit the 2 consistently.

    What the article fails to mention is that Johnson is a fantastic shot-blocker (at 5.0 BLK% last year, he would have been tops on the Raps (Amir was the best at 3.2%). He’s also a pretty good at generating steals (2.3% last year (Lowry was the best at 2.2%).

    • bobjoe

      Who cares about his TS% when he only takes two types of shots: layups/putbacks at the rim and missed threes. Pointing out his TS% is being blinded by stats.

      • Ds

        LOL. You don’t seem to understand what TS% measures. I’ll give you another measure, and hopefully, this will clear it up for you: per 100 possessions, Ross gives you 21.3 ppg. Johnson? 21.5 ppg. Similar. Who cares what kind of shot it is? A point scored is a point scored.

        • bobjoe

          >Who cares what kind of shot it is? A point scored is a point scored.
          So in other words, you have relatively little concept of how the game is played.

          Further, I don’t think you understand how per 100 possessions works. Rose does not get 21.3 ppg or Johnson 21.5 ppg, that’s not what their point stat means in that category.
          You have to understand the value and limitations of stats before you try to gloss over performance.

        • afrocarter

          Not entirely true, imo. Yes, they individually may provide similar levels of offense, but it’d be interesting to look at how their presence on the floor helps their teammates’ offense. More specifically, would Terrence’s long range accuracy and ability to spread the floor do more to help his teammates?

      • toogenerous

        It would seem you were too generous when saying blinded by stats. Might be more accurate to say that stats are all he knows, and he thinks he got one up on you.

  • webfeat

    >>Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, and possibly, Jonas Valanciunas or Bebe Nogueira,

    Looking forward to seeing this lineup in the final plays of the game.

    • afrocarter

      Not sure we’ll see many final plays with Bebe, not DeRozan, on the floor…

  • Nilanka15

    Continuing with the Jonnson/Salmons comparison, as sad as it is for me to admit this, we might miss Salmons’ ability to create his own shot.

    There were times last season when the clock was winding down, and the ball ends up in Salmons’ hands. He’s more likely to salvage the possession than Johnson.

    • Dammit81

      If you’re looking for someone on the bench to make something happen in the dying seconds of the shot clock, I think that person would be Lou Williams.

      • Trini

        Exactly. With a bench of Vasquez, Patterson & Williams.. We’ll have much better offence (& defence) to relieve our starters. I think people are underestimating how much Lou Will can bring to this team.

      • Nilanka15


        Was just pointing out the trade-off in the Johnson/Salmons comparison (in a vacuum).

  • Brett Charles Pilon

    Now we need to sign Blatche or Okafor.

    • afrocarter

      I’d rather go with Okafor; perhaps he’d be able to teach Jonas a thing or two about protecting the rim. But, at the end of the day, I’m not sure either option is all that feasible.

    • Jamshid

      First of all, Great article. Simply amazing writing. Informed, well researched and fun to read. No hint of over selling Raptor players or painting everything with unrealistic optimism. I think when it comes to Toronto Raptors, Zarar is the BEST WRITER in North America and may I say the WORLD. I am surprised that he does not get more recognition for it.

      Now as far as Back up C and need for Blatche or Okafor, I have to agree with you 100%. I have mentioned this before and it was addressed in the last podcast by the guys. In the podcast, one of the guys ( forgot who) said that brining a back up Veteran C, will take away minute from Big Val and will effect his growth !!!

      I was shocked to hear that and the logic behind that for the following reasons:

      1) We are here to compete and make a case for 2016 FAs … Imagine if Big Val gets hurt and knowing Amir’s health history, who do we have to really man up in the middle !!

      2) Even if Big Val is healthy, Do we really want to push him more than 30-35 minutes per game !!! A real size in the middle can help us rest Big Val or have some security when he gets in the foul trouble ( Amir, Patterson, Hayes are all PFs at best and Bebe is NOT ready).

      3) This reason is the most important one and one that Zarar referred to in this article regarding Ross and it is practise ( yes, we are talking about practise, practise :) ). We need a guy to push Big val in Practise. A guy with real size and experience and veteran big man move that can make Big Val , take a step back and say wow … Okafor is that guy … Hayes is 7 inches shorter than Big Val … We want him to practise against the type Cs that he will actually see in play offs and NOT PFs ONLY.

      • http://www.gamervets.com/ M1GO

        I’m with you on the Arse love (…um…)

        Anyway, Zarar was the reason why I started reading this blog many years ago when it was still his Arsenalist blog, but he continues to put out thoughful, entertaining and funny reads. Kudos!

      • Other Toronto reporters

        don’t kiss that ass too hard, you’re going to leave a mark.

        • CJT

          and I thought that was a mustache.

    • Will

      Blatche would hurt the team’s chemistry and Okafor is so injury prone. If we could somehow get Dalembert from the Knicks, that would be sweet. Even at his age, he’s still a defensive presense.

    • Alex Vostrikov

      blatche will require big minutes….. okafor may not, but will require full time bed assign to him in a hospital.

  • jvuc

    Wouldn’t aminu been a better defensive option for SF? He is still unsigned but I don’t know the cost.

    • Will

      I’d prefer JJ over Aminu.

  • Jamshid

    How come no one is talking about Donatas Motiejunas !!! Can he play C ? He is from Lithuania and plays with J.V. at the national team. Are they friend ? I think he is guy that T.O. should take a look at.

    • Alex Vostrikov

      donates is really good and smart player…. just doesn’t get his chance.
      casey would not use him much

      • Mike

        Cheap for size – 1.5 mln USD

      • Jamshid

        I am not too familiar with his game but I think it will be one of those gambles that is well worth it. What will it take to take him from Houston ?? 2 second round picks !!

        • jjdynomite

          Considering Houston lost out on Bosh and turfed Asik and are starting the undersized TJones I have a feeling they won’t give up Motie for a couple second rounders. GM Morey may have screwed up his off-season but he’s not that bad.

      • Gunner213

        we don’t need a donatas type of center as our back.. we need a hard nose (reggie evans type of center than can come in and grab boards,block shots and is not really looking to jack up shots. donatas plays like SF and with amir having ankle issues he would have to shoulder way too much load with donatas playing outside the paint.. Blatche or Okafor is a better fit for us.. we don’t need a center that jacks up long shots. if he’s jacking up long shots then who’s redounding ? did you guys not see us getting out rebound by Brooklyn’s 2nd unit in the playoff’s ? why would you bring in a center that doesn’t address those needs.. sure donatas will put up some points, but we don’t need that type of player.. we need a hard nose player that knows his roll and knows his job is to block shots, change shots, hold the ball and pass it to the offensive players.. why do you think we actually sign that brazil guy (not Bruno) that’s the style of player the team is looking for. their looking for more defense that offense at that position.

  • Will

    Great article. I’ve liked Johnson since the last time he was a Raptor. If he really has matured and doesn’t try to force his offense, he’ll be great for the Raptors.

  • Truth Teller

    Need a big wing like him in the playoffs to guard other big wings.

  • Dr. Scooby

    After his 1st stint with the Raptors, I seem to remember James Johnson being a decent passer – better than Ross is (at this time). I can potentially see him as a good fit for team ball movement on offense as well.

    • Alex Vostrikov

      he is a better passer… but if you remember, lots of Toronto offense went through his hands (even with calderon being on the floor)….. with him, majority of the time, taking the long jumper or a three.
      in Memphis, he had to share the locker room with Randolph….. one mean dude. no much room to show your attitude.
      and I think, with 2 GREAT defenders like gasol and Randolph, Johnson had his better year as a pro. in Toronto, he will act like a fool…just a matter of time.
      honestly, with all respect to him and his game, he is not in a position to play many minutes. and I just don’t see big improvement from what we have already in fields. give Johnson freedom to shoot… and he will jack many long twos and threes…. with low success rate.

      • Dr. Scooby

        I do remember him excessively handling the ball last time out with the Raps. That being said, this team is deeper and better than that team, and that allows Casey to use him as the situation requires.

        Fact is, dude can’t shoot the ball consistently, but he’s big, quick and athletic and can impose that physical style against smaller SFs and 2nd unit types.

        JJ is a relatively cheap piece of the puzzle that the team was seeking, but not necessarily a long term answer.

    • Vin Domenico

      Better passer than Ross that ain’t saying much

  • TheSpiceTyrant

    “Johnson should also, at the very least, influence Raptors practices very positively. … Adding a lengthy defensive player like Johnson into the mix means players such as DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross will have to work that much harder in practice, thus getting more out of them. ”

    Extremely important point. What we see in the games is but a fraction of what these guys do on a court.

  • nilanka

    there are certain blacks that have poor attitudes and will never amount to anything in society, this species of black is exactly like james johnson, he is toxic and has no place on our team of uncle toms, blacks that follow the rules

    • Benjamin

      You’re a racist asshole. Go fuck yourself.

  • KR

    Johnson is really a cheaper version of Fields. I wonder how he is feeling. I have always liked Landry’s game, to bad he got injured and has such a huge contract.

    • Steverino

      Fields will not get shot-happy. That’s how they’re different. He plays within his limitations.

  • IceManLikeGervin

    Bring back Sonny Weems!!

    • katmore9

      Be serious.

  • jakdripr

    One thing I read(can’t remember where, but I can find it for anyone interested), is he also lead the league last season in blocking 3 point shots. Apparently that’s why the memphis commentators called him “The Equalizer”.

    I don’t know good we were last season at defending the 3 point line, but that’s a skill that’s welcome on any team.

  • Tbird

    Lol, need to stop calling demar a bad defender. He’s average and occasionally bored era on good, when not undersized. There was an article which brought this up not long ago on B/R. I’ll take Demar on Defense not just offense, good all around player. Still got haters though.