Last year at the draft, I was jumping up and down for joy when the Bulls drafted James Johnson. The ball handling skills he had with his size were so tantalizing, and I thought he provide a second player who could create his own shot and play well on offense.
I still feel his ball handling skills are tantalizing, but the rest of his game never developed enough to utilize them in a meaningful way. His jumper wasn't good enough for him to shoot from the outside and even his mid range was shaky while he looked completely lost playing off the ball. His weight also appeared to be an issue at times, as he was playing an athletic position while carrying an extra 20lbs on him.
So what can we expect this year?
One thing is for certain, Johnson's dedicated himself to getting into elite physical condition. He's dropped all the excess fat, and he's now a 6'8 athletic beast. Last season, he made so many athletic defensive plays while carrying the extra weight that I think with proper coaching he has the physical ability to become a versatile defensive stopper that can guard three positions.
However, much like when off the ball on offense, Johnson frequently looked lost as to where he should play in the defensive scheme last season. He struggled with the covering someone else's man on a rotation or losing players on cuts and backscreens. However, when he was on the ball, had to chase someone down, or rotate to help on the ball he made spectacular athletic plays. When things were more straight forward, he'd.use his quickness, length, leaping, and timing to disrupt passing lanes, block shots, and play help defense.
Johnson's now 25-30lbs lighter and has a premier defensive coach to help him. Whether he puts in the work and can learn to play in the scheme will be on him, but the potential is there.
On the offensive end, he still has the raw talent to become successful as well. However, despite coming into summer league in phenomenal shape, Johnson struggled to play well against d-league caliber competition. This shouldn't be taken as too large a red flag as these games aren't team oriented, the overall sloppiness of the play makes them hard to evaluate, and it's such a limited sample size.
But.... we'd have hoped he'd blow us away, or at the very least look good. Neither happened.
On the offensive end, Johnson needs to do two things well to help this team. He needs to knock down open jump shots, and he needs to learn when to cut to the basket. Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer are both masters of the basket cut, and hopefully Tom Thibodeau can mentor Johnson better than VDN did. Unfortunately, these things go against his natural strength of working on the ball and taking players off the dribble.
Johnson's commitment to getting in shape shows that he's serious about becoming a player in the league. He's willing to put in the work. He's proven it. Can he learn to play a role as a supporting player? Can he maintain focus and understand his responsibilities off the ball on both ends of the court? Will he even get an opportunity to play minutes this year without an injury?
The Bulls didn't do Johnson any favors in how they crafted the roster this off-season, and I don't blame them. He didn't show them enough last year to go into this season with a 15-20 minute niche carved out for him, and now he'll need to beat out newly signed players making over twice his salary to find minutes.
In fact, Johnson's likely in jeopardy of not having his third year option picked up at all. If he doesn't show considerable improvement from last season throughout training camp and preseason, the Bulls are likely to write him off all together. They no longer have minutes to develop him, and are committed to chasing championships instead of player development.
Can Johnson come in and make an impact? I think he has the physical ability to do so. I think in limited minutes, he's shown flashes of what he can become if a team was committed to developing him, but Johnson needs to prove he's the best man for the job right now not that he could be the best man with proper development, and he needs to do it with the deck stacked against him.