Miami Heat: James Johnson Finds A Role In Miami

James Johnson has been playing more minutes than ever before for a Miami Heat team with a thin forward rotation. He has responded with the best year of his career.

The Miami Heat were bound to struggle this season. Presumed Heat lifer Dwyane Wade left in the offseason and Chris Bosh continues to struggle with blood-clotting issues and will not play this season.

With Hassan Whiteside locked in for the foreseeable future (although a trade may be imminent) and Goran Dragic probably on the move, Miami seemed set for a rebuilding year.

The Heat have quality young players in Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow. All three are currently in the top five of minutes per game for the Heat. However, a significant amount of playing time was freed up by Winslow’s recent shoulder injury.

Winslow led the team in minutes prior to his surgery and a few players seemed poised to earn those minutes.

The early winner of that competition has been James Johnson. Since Winslow’s season ended on Jan. 1, Johnson has averaged 31.2 minutes per game. Johnson had only averaged 24.2 minutes per game before the injury. James Johnson has filled a variety of niches for Miami since the injury.

Some aspects of his play appear to be entirely new to his game. With Johnson set to be a free agent after this season, he may earn himself a big raise in the offseason if he can maintain his level of play.

Defense: Versatile and Effective

James Johnson has spent time defending both forward spots this year and has been one of Miami’s better defenders. At 6’9″ and 250 pounds, he has the size to guard power forwards but also the foot speed to stick with wing players.

Johnson currently leads the Heat with a defensive box plus-minus of 1.7 per Basketball-Reference. His defensive rating of 106 is fourth on the team behind Hassan Whiteside, Willie Reed and Udonis Haslem.

James Johnson is not a great ballhawk nor a fierce shot-blocker. Johnson averages 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes–decent numbers for a forward, but not spectacular.

His defensive value instead comes from his ability to guard larger players. Miami is very thin at forward in general, but particularly at power forward. Josh McRoberts has missed 20 of 42 games this season.

Luke Babbitt has been the primary starter at power forward, but he only plays 15.7 minutes per game. Babbitt also struggles on defense and has a minus-1.1 DBPM this year. Thus, Johnson is Miami’s primary power forward defender almost by default.

He has performed admirably on that end thus far.

Scoring: At The Rim or Behind the Arc

James Johnson is averaging a career-high 11.8 points per game this season. That number climbs to 15.0 points per game in January. Johnson’s true shooting percentage is 59.0 percent, a huge climb from 53.2 percent last year and the second-best percentage of his career.

Few players are able to shoot more often and get more efficient, but Johnson has managed to do so.

The main reason for both his scoring increase and his efficiency boost has been his shooting from behind the arc. Johnson has attempted 129 shots from deep this season–already 42 more than his previous career high.

He has knocked down 38.0 percent of those shots, a remarkable number for a player whose previous best was 32.6 percent.

Most of Johnson’s attempts are above the break and he makes 34.5 percent of those shots. His 3-point efficiency is helped by a presumably unsustainable 60.7 percent (17-of-28) on right-corner shots.

Johnson might not be able to maintain his 38.0 percent shooting, but even a regression to 35 percent would be a good sign for Johnson going forward.

In addition to his new 3-point shooting, Johnson has continued to score effectively and often near the rim. He is shooting a solid 60.3 percent on restricted area shots per NBA.com. Johnson has good touch on his layups, and can occasionally explode for a rim-rattling dunk:

Johnson’s shot selection is the key to his efficiency–78.8 percent of his shots are either from the restricted area or behind the arc. Johnson has always been effective around the basket.

He took 55.8 percent of his shots from the restricted area last season and made 59.7 percent per NBA.com. His new 3-point shooting might be surprising, but nowhere near as surprising as his other new offensive development.

James Johnson, Point Forward

James Johnson is averaging a career-high 3.0 assists per game, but even that number does not tell the whole story. Johnson is averaging 5.3 assists per game in January. He leads the Heat in assist percentage in January per NBA.com, ahead of starting point guard Goran Dragic.

Johnson also leads the team in assist ratio, which accounts for turnovers in addition to just assists.

Much of Johnson’s rising assist totals can be attributed to his role as primary bench creator. Despite his uptick in minutes, Johnson still has yet to start a game for Miami this season. Tyler Johnson is often the only other reliable scorer alongside James Johnson in Miami’s bench lineups.

Even when James Johnson gets to play with the starters, however, he has still been an effective passer. Goran Dragic is more of a scoring guard than a pure point and allowing Johnson to handle the ball gives Dragic more chances to score.

Miami has recently run some inverted pick-and-rolls with Dragic as the screener, and those plays have been quite effective:

No Heat player has assisted Dragic as often as James Johnson so far this season per NBA.com. These types of plays also show how important Johnson’s new shooting touch has been.

Since Giannis Antetokounmpo has to stick with him behind the arc, Goran has a small opening to slip through immediately after the screen. Johnson makes a tough pass here, but once Dragic is through he has a clear lane to the rim.

Tony Snell has to either leave the rim or his man undefended. Although Dragic does score on Snell, the play also leaves Tyler Johnson wide open in the corner. Pick-and-rolls with the big man handling the ball are tough to guard and James Johnson allows Miami to run those types of plays.

Moving Forward

Barring a dramatic turn of events, Miami will end the season near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Even if they hold on to Dragic and Whiteside, they simply do not have the pieces to be much better than their 12-30 record.

James Johnson has been one of the best surprises of the season for the Heat. He was effective as a bench piece before the Winslow injury and has been even better since. Johnson will be entering free agency this season and has earned a long-term contract somewhere.

Given that he will be 30 by the offseason and has never made more than $4 million in a season (his salary this year), Johnson will probably be looking for a major payday.

Johnson would be useful to a variety of teams–especially if he can maintain his 38 percent mark from deep. However, his biggest payday and best opportunity may still be in Miami.

Johnson’s value would be higher with Dragic than without, but his playmaking might be even more necessary if the Heat move on from Goran.

Lottery teams are often where young players can craft breakout seasons. The increased opportunity and emphasis on development gives them plenty of chances to shine.

In Miami, however, James Johnson is crafting a breakout season of his own. Johnson has never been given this much opportunity before this year, and so far he has taken full advantage. He has been a bright spot for a Heat team whose luster has dimmed this season.

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