Amir Johnson: Not a Mere Johnson

We Toronto fans are an emotional bunch. The cold weather has us upset, inside and in front of the television all winter; emotionally investing in our teams more than a healthily adjusted human being probably ought to. The 2012-2013 season hasn’t exactly been a joie de vivre for Raptors fans. Most of us were ready to give Kyle Lowry our first born son after the first 3 games of the season when he led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage. Three quarters of the way through the season later, we have an idea why Houston gave him up for our lottery pick.

The Rudy Gay trade was as tough to support as it was to criticize. Watching Ed Davis finally begin to blossom with consistent minutes had been one of the few bright spots of the season, and losing him was a sentimental loss. Before even mentioning my feelings on Gay, let it be known that I have no interest in being a part of the Rudy Gay defenders vs. haters comment section turf war. To that end, I’ll avoid getting into salary cap realities or the ‘nerdery’ of efficiency arguments. I think that Gay is a really good player; he’s a borderline all-star, makes his team better defensively and has been tremendous in the clutch. What I can’t get past is how Memphis was willing to trade him because he was the third best player on a team that still wasn’t championship calibre. How can that possibly be the description of a franchise player? I’ve been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for far too long to celebrate rationalizing a very good player as a great one. That’s how mediocre teams are made. The goal should be higher than just good enough to make the playoffs.

So what do Raptor’s fans have to be happy about this season? Terrence Ross’ dunk contest victory was fun to watch. But, for a fan-base that hasn’t been to the playoffs in five years, another dunk contest victory feels too much like getting a participant ribbon while watching the winning teams get their trophies. Am I happy for Terrence Ross? Absolutely. But am I happy? Not so much.
I don’t believe that the 2012-2013 season has been lost though. There are feel-good stories nestled inside that 26-44 record. And chief among them for me has been Amir Johnson.

When Amir Johnson was resigned to a five year, $30 million dollar contract in July of 2010, the response of Raptor fans was a collectively long and drawn out, sarcastic ‘Greeeaaaaaaaaaaaat.’ It wasn’t that we had any ill will towards Amir, but in a week when Chris Bosh had just dumped us on national TV, the third star player to spurn the franchise, we weren’t really in the best of moods. Amir Johnson demonstrated upside, but it was impossible to tell if that upside would ever be realized by a player who acted like a walking personal foul. Amir’s per 36 minutes stats suggested that he could be a double-double player, but he had averaged over 6 fouls in those per 36-minute stats for every year of his career up to that point. If it seemed to you like Amir Johnson was always in foul trouble when you watched on TV, it’s because he was. This explained why he had never averaged more 24 minutes a game, chaining his potential.

The 2010-2011 season seemed to validate both the investment and the trepidation over Amir Johnson. He bumped his per game numbers in minutes, rebounds and points up, demonstrating both improvement and potential. But fouls continued to contain him. Johnson played 24 minutes a game most nights because he had to be sat down with fouls, not because he didn’t belong out there. He also played the same position as the Raptors highest paid player, Andrea Bargnani, and their new first round draft pick, Ed Davis. The only national attention Amir got this season was a mention in Bill Simmons worst contracts in the league column as the punch line of a Bryan Colangelo joke. The optimism remained more in potential than reality.

Between the lockout and the 23-43 record, last season seemed like a lost season for the Raptors. What was noteworthy to see though was how much better they did with Amir Johnson getting more minutes when Andrea Bargnani went down. The advanced stats backed up the eye test, as the Raptors were more than 7 points per 100 possessions better when Amir was on the floor compared to when he was on the bench. That very quietly made Johnson one of the most valuable players on the team, and reason to look forward to his 2012-2013 season.

During this past 2012-2013 season, Amir Johnson has not disappointed. Johnson has been a defensive rock for the Raptors. The Raptors have a defensive efficiency rating of 104.9 (that’s 104.9 points per 100 possessions) when Johnson is on the floor, which would be good for 12th place overall, between Philadelphia and Miami. However, when Johnson sits, the Raptors defense gives up a defensive rating of 111.3, which is only a fraction better than the league worst and historically bad Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats. Johnson’s defense is largely the product of effort, as he is willing to play the grunt work of fighting for defensive rebounds and moving opposing big men off the spots where they want the ball. This kind of effort was on display when the Raptors beat the visiting Clippers back on February 1st. Without Chris Paul, the Clippers had still been winning with Blake Griffin scoring and facilitating from the low post. Amir Johnson had the task of stopping Griffin, one of the strongest power forwards in the league. He did so by bullying Griffin off the low block before he could get the ball, and then not allowing him to back his way down once he got it. The Raptors would double with their second big man and Griffin would be forced to pass the ball back out. This kind of defense is a lot more work than it sounds like, and the patience it requires is uncommon, especially against someone as strong and talented as Griffin. By the end of the 3rd quarter, Griffin was visibly frustrated by Johnson, and spent most of the 4th quarter on the bench.

It’s not just defense out of the post for Johnson, who is leading the team in blocks despite being an undersized centre. His improved timing on defensive rotations from the weak side has his blocks up to 1.3 per game. The fact that he’s putting up more blocks and less fouls while playing more minutes is evidence of a new found patience. Johnson has always been an energetic player willing to play his heart out, but defense requires staying on your feet for pump fakes, moving your feet instead of reaching and challenging shots instead of trying to block them every time. Johnson’s energy is a great gift, but the enthusiasm that came with it got him in to foul trouble, removing him from the game. As he has learned when to rotate, improved his footwork and, perhaps most importantly, his patience, he has seen his fouls finally start to go down. This has improved his defense, and let him spend more time on the court to reveal a developing offensive game.

Amir Johnson has also been a pleasant surprise on the offensive side of the court this season. The Raptors are a better offensive team than the Lakers when Johnson plays, with an offensive efficiency rating of 109.7, which is good enough to crack the top 10 in the league. However, with Johnson on the bench, the Raptors offence ranks even with that of the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves, uncomfortably close to the bottom dregs of the league. Besides being the best offensive rebounder on the team, Amir Johnson brings his real value to the game away from the basket. The NBA is dominated by the pick and roll and plays that utilize screens to get wing players open looks from outside or lanes to drive to the basket. Finding a big man who can thrive in this environment is more difficult than you might think. This kind of offensive system means less touches down low for the big man, and ego is always a factor in the NBA (just ask Dwight Howard how he feels about it). But more than that, it requires an exceptional amount of effort from those big men, who have to work a lot harder than most to lug their 6’10, 270 lbs. bodies all over the court. When the ball changes possession, a team’s centre is almost always standing right underneath his team’s net, either rebounding or inbounding the ball. He has to sprint up the floor all the way to the same spot on the other end of the court while the offence sets. Then he has to run up to the top of the 3-point arc to plant his feet and set a screen for a teammate that results in his defender running into him. It’s a lot of work, and to do it well requires speed and enthusiasm, or proves ineffective (again, just ask Dwight Howard, who hasn’t met a screen he actually wanted to set this entire season). Johnson does this tirelessly, and it is often what frees up the middle of the court for DeRozan or Gay to drive, or frees up Lowry, and especially Calderon before him, to take a shot at the elbow or hit a cutting teammate going to the basket. Johnson is a crucial part of setting the whole team’s offence in this way, but he gets to be a part of it in the high-low pick and roll.

Amir Johnson pick and roll

Johnson has proven to be an absolute beast in setting a high pick for the point guard, sealing his own man and rolling hard to the basket. Squint your eyes a little, and you might think he’s Amare Stoudemire or Tyson Chandler as he takes an easy pass for Tomahawk dunk after Tomahawk dunk. This offence comes in part from an improving skill set and touch around the basket, but it is much more the result of a tireless effort and willingness to play a team role.

As impressive as the efficiency numbers are, it’s that last point that has endeared Amir Johnson the most to Toronto fans. Toronto is a hockey crazed market, where we celebrate a grinder who works hard in the corners, drops his gloves and gets stitched up on the bench as much or more than a flashy goal scorer. Raptors fans can see Amir Johnson playing this role for the Raptors, and he has found himself adored as a result. Playing with this haircut and showing up at a Leafs game like this has endeared him even more to a city that is longing for an emotional attachment to a basketball player who actually wants to play here too. Don’t get me wrong; Amir Johnson is not going to be Hakeem Olajuwon. But when you hear the roar of the Air Canada Centre crowd whenever Amir subs in for Andrea Bargnani, it certainly sounds as if they think he is by comparison. While his style of play has endeared Amir Johnson to Toronto fans, his improvement has had an even bigger impact on the play of the team. And when that comes from a 25 year old who is under contract and happy to be in Toronto, it’s reason enough to look forward to next winter.

Andrew Thompson

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