The Disappearance Of James Johnson

The Memphis Grizzlies have been one of the biggest surprises this season. After a disappointing start, which saw them float around the .500 mark for the first half of the year, they found their rhythm when the heart and soul of their team, Marc Gasol, returned from a sprained MCL in January. Since then, they’ve been firing on all cylinders and find themselves fighting for a playoff seed in the crowded Western Conference. And based on how they’ve played as of late, many believe that they are capable of making some noise in the post-season, much like they did last season when they went to the Conference Finals before the San Antonio Spurs broke out the brooms and swept them away.

However, there is a feeling that this team could be even better if head coach Dave Jaeger just bit the bullet and made one small change: cut down Tayshaun Prince’s minutes and give them to the unproven James Johnson. In the wake of Quincy Pondexter’s season ending injury, the Grizzlies picked up Johnson from the D-League in the hope that he could give them a much needed boost as they were struggling to win ball games at the time, and he fit in like a glove right away. Not only that, he became a fan favorite overnight; that fanbase largely leads the call for Johnson to get some more burn. Only thing is, it hasn’t happened. Tayshaun Prince continues to get heavy minutes as the starting small forward and James Johnson has seen his opportunities fade away.

The reason why is a little hazy.

The Logjam

Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and James Johnson are all, in essence, the same player – none are threats from the perimeter, they all get down and dirty on the defensive end, and most of their points come from within the paint. Therefore, distributing minutes between the three of them is pretty difficult, especially after the Grizzlies woke up and smelled the coffee in the Conference Finals last season when floor spacing became a glaring issue. Quite simply, playing two of them at the same time is destined to end badly because it instantly causes a vacuum – the floor shrinks and it makes it harder for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to get their numbers. However, that’s not necessarily the biggest problem right now.

Since March 1st, James Johnson has seen his minutes trickle down from 21.3 per game to 11.0. Tayshaun Prince, on the other hand, has seen his remain the same despite a drop in overall production. (He’s averaging just 5.4 points per contest on 41.5 percent shooting from the floor and 16.7 percent from the three in those 14 games, which by pretty much ever standard in the book is terrible). It’s not that Johnson did anything particular to warrant a drop in minutes. It just happened. Tony Allen got healthy and returned back to the lineup with his usual 20 minutes, which undoubtedly took away some opportunities, even though they don’t play the same position. Yet the crux of the issue is this: Prince continues to get the bulk of the minutes at the three, while Johnson watches from the sideline, to the dismay of many.

The Numbers

The distribution of minutes is one problem. The on-court numbers are another.

Comparing Johnson and Prince’s Synergy numbers doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on the debate – they are both horrific spot-up shooters and the rest of their numbers are relatively similar. Johnson leans more heavily on off the ball movement to score than Prince does and he is shooting a better percentage in four of the five categories listen below, though sample size, naturally, has to be taken into account.

Player Spot-Up Post-Up Transition Cut P&R Ball Handler
Tayshaun Prince 52-173 (30.1%) 20-58 (34.5%) 44-60 (73.3%) 20-31 (64.5%) 12-47 (25.5%)
James Johnson 25-76 (32.9%) 8-15 (53.3%) 22-40 (55%) 10-15 (66.7%) 10-22 (45.5%)

Over the last few years, the Grizzlies haven’t been a team that hangs their hat on putting up big numbers on the board, so their inefficiencies in that area isn’t all that worrisome. Besides, with Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the lineup, the scoring is pretty much taken care of, leaving that fifth person with the task of doing the dirty work, like grab rebounds, get steals and block shots.

Below is a comparison of their per-36 numbers on the season and as you’ll see, there is a stark difference between the two.

Player Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Tayshaun Prince 8.3 4.1 2.2 0.8 0.4
James Johnson 14.5 6.4 4.3 1.8 2.3

In most cases, per-36 numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt because they tend not to paint the whole picture. But for the sake of this argument, they’re pretty reliable.

In his 10 games in the D-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Johnson was a stat-padding monster, averaging 18.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.4 bucks and 1.9 steals per contest. While we don’t have a huge sample size from the work he has done in the NBA, those gaudy numbers have translated to some degree. In the 22 games that he has been given between 20-and-29 minutes this season, he has stepped up to the plate to the tune of 10.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, per Basketball Reference. Compare that to Prince’s 6.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists when he’s gotten that many minutes and we are back to square one.

The Excuse

The one thing that Tayshaun Prince has going for him at this stage of his career is his experience. He came into his own when he was a part of that tough Detroit Pistons squad in the early 2000’s and won a championship as a baby-faced sophomore. He continued to grow from there, making a name for himself as a frustrating defender and a not great but capable scorer. But father time has caught up to him over the years and now, at the age of 34, he’s a shell of his former self. He’s still able to use his gangly arms to disrupt plays and contest shots, but his lateral quickness has disappeared over the years, making him less valuable. However, he’s not useless. He’s a ‘been there, done that’ type of player and brings a level of experience that nobody on the roster besides Mike Miller really has.

The reason Prince is still getting the bulk of those minutes is because he’s a safer pick. Every night, you know what you expect from him, even though it’s not very much. He’ll take the task of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player, and more often than not he’ll do a formidable job. As you’ll see in the video below, he’s still able to use his length to disrupt shots and does a good job of fighting through screens to get to his spots. On offense, he’s not afraid of taking outside shots, and while it doesn’t usually end well (he’s shooting 31.94 percent from mid-range this season), defenders still close out on him for some reason, which avoids them from helping off on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph too much. Combine that with Courtney Lee’s floor spacing abilities and it’s not all doom and gloom for the Grizzlies. However, in the playoffs, where every weakness is magnified, teams may live with Prince firing up jump-shots because, well, it’s the right thing to do, in which case, all the bricks will hail down on The River City.

James Johnson has proven his value to this team, but his inexperience remains a little worrying. Seven months ago, he found himself weighing his options after his latest contract expired. With no NBA team knocking down his door, he opted to play in the D-League to stay close to home in the hope of getting a call-up. Sure enough it didn’t take long for that to happen, but he’s a young player on a team that is battle tested and ready to make some noise in the post-season. Not only that, but he’s sort of a loose cannon. He crashes boards, barrels his way through defenders and makes passes that are destined to wind up in the hands of the opposing team. As Tim Brown put it, he’s like Tony Allen on cocaine, which is both awesome and terrifying at the same time. While that comes with shoddy shooting mechanics and an inability to spread the floor, his movement off the ball makes up for that. As a result, the Grizzlies have been a better team offensively this season with him on the court compared to when he’s on the bench. To no surprise, the same cannot be said about Tayshaun Prince.

The most intriguing asset Johnson has is his versatility. He’s long, quick and strong, and when you put that all together, you have a defender who’s capable of guarding shooting guards, small forwards and even power forwards. He’s blocked more threes than anyone else in the league and he can body up the likes of LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Paul Millsap in the low block. That gives Dave Jaeger the luxury of playing him at the power forward in small lineups when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol need some rest.

What Now?

The Grizzlies are just fine with Tayshaun Prince occupying their wing. Even with his offensive woes, they’re very much in the playoff race and they’ve done enough damage in the second half of the season to instill fear in the eyes of every team in the Western Conference. However, there’s a feeling Grizzlies fans can’t escape, which is that James Johnson would be better suited for that role. He brings a level of youth and excitement that Prince doesn’t, and for a team that lacks any glitz and glam, Johnson is a much needed injection of gratification. The reason why his minutes have dropped in the recent weeks is unclear. It is well known that he was battling an ankle injury earlier this month, yet he has continued to play on it and appears to be healthy enough to log more minutes.

Last year the Grizzlies ranked 26th in the league in bench scoring per game and this year they’re ranked 10th. James Johnson undoubtably has a lot to do with that, so if he were to be moved into the starting lineup in place of Tayshaun Prince, they would lose a lot of that firepower, which could wind up being a detriment to the team. For that reason, it would be in the best interest of the Grizzlies moving forward to keep Johnson in his usual bench role, yet increase his minutes back up to the 20-25 mark so he could share the court with the rest of the starters. But sadly, we have no way of knowing how that would look. According to NBA.com, Johnson has played with Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Courtney Lee for just seven minutes this season. (Their per-game statistics based on those few minutes are through the roof, though).

For all his drawbacks, Prince is still of value to the Grizzlies because of his defense, but you can’t help but wonder what would happen if the roles were reversed and Johnson got all his minutes. Only thing is, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. With the team shaping up for the playoffs, Jaeger has made it clear that he’s more comfortable rolling out with Prince. But for someone who’s getting paid 14 times more than his backup, it doesn’t seem like the right decision.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats.

Scott Rafferty

  • Insane Gherkin

    How can Johnson accept averaging only 3.4 bucks per game? That’s way, WAY below minimum wage.