Fit Like A Glove: The Resurgence of James Johnson

In the 2009 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls selected James Johnson from Wake Forest with the 16th overall pick. While he showed flashes of potential in his rookie season in Chicago, it was one plagued with inconsistency. For every block, steal or offensive rebound, there were missed shots and turnovers, leading him to playing spot minutes off of Vinny Del Negro’s bench. Then there was the dunk. You know, the one in which he was a step slow on a play involving LeBron James, which has since been viewed over 200,000 times on YouTube.

Since then, Johnson has bounced around the Association.

On February 22nd, 2011, he was traded to Toronto in return for a first-round pick. As a Raptor, Johnson started 65 games over two seasons and averaged a shade under 10 points per game. While his toughness impressed head coach at the time, Dwane Casey, there was simply too much of a log jam in the backcourt with newly acquired Landry Field, Linas Kleiza and Terrence Ross joining the team in the off-season. He was therefore sent packing again, this time to Sacramento for a second-round pick.

Johnson spent the entire season with the Kings, but saw his minutes and opportunities decrease quite significantly. When his rookie contract expired that summer, the Kings opted not to re-sign him. Despite proving himself as a defensive specialist, he had become a liability on the offensive end in Sacramento, shooting just 41.3 percent from the field and 59.7 percent from the charity stripe. Johnson was given one more shot to nab himself a new contract when the Atlanta Hawks invited him to their training camp. However, his stay with them would be short-lived, as he was waived before the start of the season, leaving him without a job for the near future.

With no where else to turn, Johnson opted to join the reigning D-League champions, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and it was there where he put his name back on the map. Through 10 games, the 6-foot-9 forward established himself as one of the top prospects, averaging 18.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.4 blocks and 1.9 steals per contest. He posted seven double-doubles, flirted with a triple-double six times, blocked four or more shots in six different games and on December 16th, he got the call he had been waiting for, courtesy of the Memphis Grizzlies.

After a long road back to the NBA, Memphis seemed like a perfect fit for Johnson. The Grit & Grind system would allow him to play the hard nosed defense he had become well known for and his deficiencies on the offensive end wouldn’t be quite so prominent with the likes of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph shelving the bulk of the scoring load. It was a good fit for the Grizzlies, too. After a slow start, which saw them post a 10-15 record, an injection of his energy was what they needed and so far, they’ve only had good results to show for it.

In an interview with CSN Chicago, Johnson was very grateful of the opportunity given to him by the Grizzlies and was confident about his ability to help this team:

I feel like this team right here really helped me become who I want to be. They let me do it all. They let me shoot, they let me rebound, they let me push the ball. They let me play within myself and I’m just thankful that God put [Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger] in my path because he’s not holding me back. He’s not telling me, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ He’s telling me to go get it and play within my game, and if you’re as confident as I am, then you feel like you can pretty much do everything and you try to limit stuff that you normally would do and do the stuff that will help the team.

via Ex-Bulls pick James Johnson’s journey takes him to Memphis | CSN Chicago.

One of the ways Johnson has been so effective is by complimenting the Grizzlies’ moderately sized three by using his strength, athleticism and speed in off-ball situations, cutting to the basket, putting back offensive rebounds, leaking out in transition and showing off his improved spot-up jumper. In the 19 games Johnson has played with Memphis, he’s posted the best on-court net rating (+5.9) of Grizzlies who have been given more than 300 minutes, per, and as a team, they’ve been better on both ends of the court with him playing one of the wings. All of this has led to Johnson having the best season of his career, posting averages of 8.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals in just 22.9 minutes per game.

Since his call-up, the Grizzlies have been one of the NBA’s best teams. In the New Year, they have lost just three games, propelling themselves into the conversation in a crowded Western Conference with their 22-20 record. With a healthy Marc Gasol back in the post and a bolstered backcourt with Courtney Lee and James Johnson, their early season struggles seem to be of no concern and, if anything, are an after-thought. Now, the focus has shifted to making the Playoffs, where they’ll look to grind their way as far as their current talent will take them. While anything more than a second round appearance seems like wishful thinking, a matchup with the Houston Rockets or their familiar foe, the L.A. Clippers, could work in their favor. And you can rest assured James Johnson will be there along the way, blocking shots, drawing tough defensive assignments and reminding you why he was once on the cusp of being a lottery pick.

Scott Rafferty