I didn't want to write about James Johnson. Not yet. Doug's already given his take and really, the Bulls won't know what they have in him until at least Christmas. But then, in my first taste of the watered-down wine that is the NBA preseason, he went and did this:
So even though it's entirely premature to talk about Johnson's NBA game and his role on the Bulls, I'm going to do it.
There was a lot to like in that highlight reel: tipback jam, kickout three, shot block, open court handle, and of course, the game winner. In real time a play I loved that didn't make the reel but does help win games was a foul Johnson took on Millsap in the second quarter. Hinrich tried to save a loose ball on their end, Millsap poked it away and went up for the dunk, and Johnson clobbered him going for the ball. Tyrus and Noah have length and plenty of athleticism, but sometimes they bounce off of guys. It's physics. Johnson is built like a tank. When he goes up, guys bounce off of him.
I watched Johnson in summer league and he showed all of these skills at one point or another. He's a natural athlete with a feel for basketball. So why did he drop to us at 16?
I have a theory. GMs are scared of big wings that are good but not definably great at any one skill in college. There is a litany of guys, similar to Johnson, that didn't tear up the league: guys like Rodney White (6'9" 240, 9th in 2001), Joey Graham (6'7", 16th in 2005) and Shawne Williams (6'9 225, 17th in 2006). The combo PF/SF can be a hard one to judge. Having a good enough all around game can make you a star in college, but will leave you begging in the NBA if you can't learn to do anything great. So this is the risk that James Johnson presents, a player who can look in moments like a super-sized Paul Pierce, a Carmelo clone and even a puffy Lebron. Can he put together enough of these moments to earn trust and time on the floor? Can he limit his game and play a role? How will he discover what his role is, and what, if anything, makes him different from disappointments that came before?
I'll let you in on a secret. I think James is better than that list of busts. Though it may take time I think he'll be good, and I even think he has a chance to be great. And it's all there in the highlight clip.
Take a second look at that buzzer beater. How he rebounds the ball, and puts up the shot over Kirilenko's outstretched arm, that high arc. The shot is perfect-it cuts through the net without even touching the rim.
James is better on the move than he is standing still. It's reflective in his shot and his ability to handle in the open court. In college, he put up 54% shooting from the floor in college but only 70% from the foul line. Physically, he is the opposite of Tyrus Thomas, who loses his balance when he puts the ball on the floor and can be ungainly, to put it nicely, on drives, but shoots quite well from the line (78%). Thanks to his martial arts background, James has natural talent and natural feel for a balance-based game like Paul Pierce employs, but he must learn to be a pro, to refine his shot, and add polish to his natural instincts. But the foundation is there, and I think it will be easier for him to grow into his game than it has for Thomas, who has had to learn the game from the bottom up, starting with the basic physics of keeping his core strong through contact. Jame's intrinsic gift also allow him to do this:
So if I were Vinny, where would I play James Johnson? Defensively, I'd like to run him against small forwards, not only because his strength could wear on them in the limited minutes the rookie is sure to receive but I also think he'd add a lot to his own repertoire from going against the great offensive players at that position. Offensively, it's a bit of a mix. James and Deng have different skill sets, so I wouldn't want James to try and play the same way, but there are two players his game, offensively, could draw from: Brad Miller and John Salmons.
Miller is more obvious. Johnson should be able to run the high pick and roll with Rose at the top of the key, Miller's bread and butter play, and Johnson's own passing skills allow him to make the same reads Brad does from the high post. Johnson as a backup to Salmons is more circumspect, but Salmons's offensive game shares some fundamentals with Johnson's-comfort facing up and putting the ball on the floor rather than curling off screens for pick and pops, a one on one game based more on craft and trickery than sheer speed, and the probability of facing a size mismatch (most nights John will have a size advantage over small 2s as James will over small 3s). Having a rookie switch between two roles is a tall task, and if I could only pick one role for James it would be Miller's. In essence, if Johnson reaches his potential he brings the team a forward amalgam of our two former Kings, a frontcourt playmaker and ballhander the team has been lacking.
It's easy to get excited in preseason, and at this point all opinions are premature. But I want to believe in James Johnson, and I strongly believe if he approaches the game as pro and works hard, we will all see the results, and it could be sooner than you think.