Arguably there is no greater disparity between two Raptor players than James Johnson and Landry Fields. One has physical gifts and natural athleticism and one has high game I.Q. and a solid locker room demeanor.
About the only thing they have in common is each has been challenged by external burdens. Both enter this season with the goal of overcoming their encumbrance to carve out a niche in order to sustain a prolonged NBA career.
On the surface that goal looks far easier for Johnson to achieve given his affliction centered on his inability to accept a role within a team whereas Fields is contending with a physical limitation in an expiring contract year.
This article marks the wrap-up of our player preview series as we gear up for the season. My focus will primarily be on Johnson as Blake’s wonderful article on Fields pretty much covered the bases.
It’s fair to say Fields had the worst season of his 4-year career stemming from the ulnar nerve injury and subsequent two surgeries to repair it. Though his 3-point shot is shelved due to the nerve issues, the greater concern I have is his hesitation to shoot at all. In the rare moments we saw him on court (322 minutes total last season) he brought his defensive intensity, but on the offensive end his reluctance to shoot or perhaps lack of confidence took a toll on the Raptors’ offensive flow.
Expect to see Fields utilized in short stints off the bench specifically as a defensive stopper or to add energy. Ross is likely to see his minutes increase and Vasquez will surely be utilized in late game situations in tandem with Lowry. With the additions of Williams and Johnson it’s hard to envision Fields racking up any significant or consistent presence on court.
Potentially the area Fields can add his greatest value will be in practice sessions. Accepting this role to help prepare the team for opponents and stewarding youngster Bruno Caboclo may in fact be the greatest benefit he can bring to the table. The other more obvious benefit is the cap space which will be created via his expiring contract.
With news the team had signed James Johnson to a 2-year contract this off season I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in speculating: what if. Looking back at the quandary behemoth Joe Johnson created for us in the playoffs it’s easy to speculate how much different the outcome of the series may have been with James Johnson on our roster. On the other hand some people were caught off guard by the signing as his abrupt exit came about due to issues stemming from malfeasance toward Coach Casey.
It’s easy to draw a line of similarities between James Johnson and Kyle Lowry; each felt they were not being utilized to their full potential and each garnered reputations for being difficult because of their frustrations in communicating that drive and passion. The difference is Lowry is a starter, a potential All Star and a point guard who is a leader on and off the court. Johnson though a physical specimen is better suited as a role player who offers multiple intangibles.
Following his departure from Toronto, Johnson spent time with Sacramento and Memphis and even a brief spell in the D League with the Rio Grande Vipers. The latter stint was pivotal in helping him mature and recognize that being a role player was an equally important position on any NBA team. He brought his new attitude to Memphis, and made the most of his opportunity which was instrumental in him earning a 2-year contract back with the team and coach who first pinpointed his talent as a defensive specialist.
- Highest FG% of career: 46.4%
- Highest FT% of career: 84.4% (up from 59.7% year prior)
- Stats: 7.4 Points, 3.2 Rebounds, 2.1, Assists and 11.5% PIE
- Post All Star Break, Grizzlies Coach, Dave Joerger increased Johnson’s minutes resulting in: 8.5 points, .05 – 3-pointers, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.6 blocks in 22 minutes per game.
- Memphis is known for their grind house mentality and emphasis on defense. Marc Gasol won Defensive Player two seasons ago and Tony Allen is a perennial candidate. Yet it was James Johnson who led the Grizzlies in on court production with +5.5. (see chart as per 82games.com)
- His plus/minus of +1.8 was only bested marginally by Conley and Randolph.
Though Johnson experienced growth in Memphis, statistically his overall best season occurred during his first term in Toronto. Initially, he was a Casey favorite who earmarked him to be the team’s defensive specialist. Certainly his 258 lb, 6’8” frame offers a luxury the Raptors haven’t had coming off the bench arguably ever. Moreover, Johnson’s size while a huge asset is coupled with speed, a rarity that offers tangible benefits as he’s versatile enough to shut down virtually any opposing guard or forward.
Like Lowry before him, this season will be a testament to how far he has grown as a person and his ability to transfer his words into actions. If he falters don’t expect Coach Casey, GM Ujiri or the players to tolerate it. On the other hand should he bond with the existing Raptor clan he would form part of the most versatile benches in the Association. And, I can guarantee you who his assignment would be if we draw Brooklyn again this April.
In a perfect world:
- Landry Fields wakes up one morning to find his arm suddenly feeling normal again (you never know with nerve damage, it’s that unpredictable).
- James Johnson reconnects with his inner child who loved playing the game of basketball for the pure joy of it and embraces his Raptor fraternity.
The average NBA career is 5-years; Johnson passed that milestone last season and Fields enters his fifth year this season. While both are looking to make their mark on the Raptors with an eye to the future, the reality is the progression of one will probably come at the expense of the other.
The irony is if we could meld these two players into one, we’d have the epitome of the perfect NBA role player. Perhaps a season spent together in close proximity on the bench will allow for a natural osmosis to occur. Stranger things have happened and after last year I’m not ruling anything out of the spectrum of possibility.