Heat’s Johnson held his own after call up, but struggled late in season
Despite a tough season full of heartache for the Miami Heat, the bright spot for the team was the inspired play of their young core that took advantage of the extra playing time available due to injuries and were able to flourish over the course of the season.
Tyler Johnson was a big part of that and his contributions off the bench made him an instant fan favorite and a player to keep an eye on next season as he seeks to build off of his rookie campaign and prove he truly belongs in the NBA.
An undrafted rookie out of Fresno State with plenty to prove, Johnson made a solid first impression for the Miami Heat during Summer League play last year averaging 12.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 22.8 minutes while shooting 55.1 percent from the field in 10 games before getting an invite to training camp.
"With Tyler, these are the Miami Heat stories — guys that are undrafted — it just doesn’t happen that often," said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra after he conducted exit interviews with his players last week. "You have to have the right fit, the right organization, the right player, the right make up. But you just look over the course of the years, undrafted players on average there’s less then five a year that actually make it and have a role and then can you sustain it."
Johnson, 22, was one of the final cuts at the conclusion of training camp, but wisely stayed on the Heat’s radar by moving on to their NBA Development League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where he learned the Heat’s system as he worked on his game. Miami then brought him back by signing him to a pair of 10-day contracts beginning in January before retaining him with a two-year contract.
"He’s earned everything that he’s gotten up to this point," Spoelstra said after Johnson signed with the team for the rest of the season in February. "He’s very tough, very competitive. He’ll be the last one in the gym today. Those are the qualities that you like, and he’s showing improvement as a combo guard. We think he’s a promising young guard prospect that we can develop."
With precious little depth remaining after injuries took a toll on the roster, Johnson always put forth maximum effort and was a spark plug off the bench with his energy and hustle when his name was called. Just like any NBA rookie, however, he was prone to inconsistent play and diminishing returns on his outside shot once he began struggling from the field towards the latter part of the season.
Though he was pushed further down the rotation after the Heat acquired Goran Dragic in February, the rookie stayed ready when called upon.
"I think it was the best year of my life because I got to experience what it’s like to play basketball at the highest level," Johnson said at the conclusion of the season. "But at the end of the day I’m not really satisfied with just being here. I want to stay here and stay in the league for a long time and make this a career."
WHAT HE DID RIGHT
Although he made a name for himself initially with his athleticism and dunking prowess during the Summer League and the NBA preseason, by the time he had signed with the Heat after his lengthy stint in Sioux Falls he had developed into more of a well-rounded player. He showed improved ball handling skills and a playmaking mentality when not looking for his shot.
If he can continue to work at becoming a true combo guard with a reliable outside shot and increase his assists, he could ultimately battle Mario Chalmers for more minutes next season.
"He’s relentless with his work ethic and with his drive," Spoelstra said. "A lot of players would have gotten discouraged by being cut after a full summer and having to go to Sioux Falls. He looked at it as an opportunity to get better and play minutes under our guidance and our system. Doors happen to open for players like that and it did when we re-signed him and he made the most of his opportunities so I know he’s poised and looking forward to this offseason."
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
Johnson, who averaged 5.9 points and 18.8 minutes per game in 32 games with the Heat, showed excellent range earlier in the season but seemingly lost faith in his outside shot as the season wore down. His overall shooting percentage subsequently sank with each passing month, from nearly 48 percent in February — his first full month with the team — down to 32.5 percent for the month of April. He’ll also need to improve his handle in order to limit turnovers when the ball is in hands.
"Probably finishing better around the basket," he said on what he wants to work on over the summer. "I have the ability to get there and sometimes I’ll finish over the top but I think there’s a big time improvement that I can have in that area."
Just five days after pouring in 26 points in 26 minutes in a win against the Phoenix Suns, Johnson took his game to another level by scoring 24 points and adding six rebounds and six assists in 44 minutes off the bench to help the shorthanded Heat overcome a 16-point deficit to beat the Sacramento Kings in overtime on March 7. Johnson scored five points in the overtime period, including a dagger 3-pointer with less then a minute remaining in the game to give the Heat a commanding four-point lead.
Johnson indicated after his exit interview last week that he plans on returning to his old stomping grounds in Mountain View, California, for a few weeks to rest, but will then head back to South Florida to prepare for Summer League.
"I have the ability to take these experiences that I went through this year, as weird as some of them were, and apply them to my game as opposed to just getting into the best shape and still doing college workouts," he said. "I can understand specifically what I can do to make the jump for next year."