Amir Johnson: the improbable grizzled vet
Having watched video with an assistant coach, gone through his pregame shooting routine and taken time to sign about two dozen autographs while posing for at least half that many photos, Amir Johnson was getting ready to do an interview.
But first, he wanted to bust on Terrence Ross.
"You a rookie," Johnson said to the second-year swingman who has emerged this season as a starter and key contributor for the resurgent Toronto Raptors. "Until you've played the whole 82 games, you're a rookie. That's what the old heads told me."
"I've played 82 games," Ross replied with the smile of someone who's had this conversation many times before. Not 10 minutes earlier, Ross told me this was one of Johnson's favorite ways of teasing him.
"No you didn't," Johnson answered back. "You don't have 82 games under your belt."
"Yes I do," Ross said. "I've got like, a hundred games under my belt."
"No you don't."
Ross just laughed. For the record, he has over 140 games under his belt -- a number that took Johnson more than four years to accrue. He loves Johnson -- everyone in Toronto does -- and he appreciates everything he does for the team. Johnson is the guy who does all the dirty work on the court and keeps everyone in good spirits once the game is over. He's also the unlikely elder statesman for a young, impressionable team that is just beginning to find itself.
"He's the guy that sacrifices everything," Ross said. "Everything he does is a hustle play. He's been here for so long. He's laid it on the line. That's one thing about Amir: He's always going to put it out there."
Johnson's career arc is unlike any other. He was the very last preps-to-pro players to get drafted into the NBA, and he received his education from veteran sages like Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Dale Davis on the mid-2000s Detroit Pistons. It was a team that reached the conference finals three straight years and had very little playing time for a kid fresh out of high school.
The logical question then, is how long did Amir Johnson feel like a rookie?
"Man, I've got 500 games," he said, dismissing the entire premise.
It's true. Still only 26 years old, Johnson played his 500th career game earlier this month, an occasion he marked by scoring 25 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and chasing Kevin Durant around the court. Durant scored 51 points that night, including a game-winning three over Johnson's outstretched hand. You wouldn't know it from the box score or the highlight, but Johnson did as good a job as one can do guarding Durant when he's shooting like that, which is more or less how he's been able to get to this point in his career.
"He's consistent," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "The word ‘consistent' is what you get from him. Whether it's playing in the post, chasing around Durant -- you wouldn't know it by the numbers he put up -- but he did a good job working him. He can play down in the post. He's multi-faceted as far as being able to guard a lot of situations. He's one of our glue guys for our team and our franchise."
You don't think about preps-to-pro players in those terms. We fixate on the superstars -- LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant -- or the spectacular failures like Ndubi Ebi or Leon Smith. But over an 11-year period from KG to Amir, the influx of high school players into the NBA arrived in all shapes, sizes and skill levels.
There have been three different MVPs, three Defensive Player of the Year winners, a Sixth Man of the Year and almost a dozen All-Stars. But there have been many more players like Amir Johnson, who learned how to play and survive in the NBA by being in the NBA.
"It was basically a learning process for me," Johnson said. "I had a great group of guys who taught me the ins and outs, the on and off the court. I'll take it as my college years. If you're ready to take that next step, you're ready. My class in ‘05, some of those guys were just physically ready. LeBron's class. Dwight.
"For me, I play the same way every time. Running the floor, playing hard, playing defense. That's just my game. I don't know how to change it, I don't know how to slow it down. That's just how I play. I guess I developed into a glue guy, a guy that does everything. You can't really teach it. That's just the way I go."
This has always been Johnson's game. There was just no way of knowing if he'd grow into it in the pros. He played only three games as a rookie and just eight in his second season when he also spent time in the D-League, but the Pistons liked his potential and signed him to an extension.
A powerfully-built 6'9 forward, Johnson was strong enough to guard big men and quick enough to play on the perimeter once he learned to keep his fouls under control. He added a respectable outside shot and cracked the Pistons rotation where his per-minute numbers were gaining the attention of the nascent analytics crowd. His career really took off after a trade to Toronto before the 2009 season, where he's been for the last five seasons.
"Amir's just a big kid. He's a Build-a-Bear, man. Honestly." -DeMar DeRozan
Johnson is experienced enough to have earned salty vet status -- "He's young but he's got a lot of dog years under him," Casey said -- and playful enough to be the locker room leader who keeps everyone loose.
"Amir's just a big kid," said fellow young veteran DeMar DeRozan. "He's a Build-a-Bear, man. Honestly. Between the lines he's going to give you everything he's got. Off the court he's one of the funniest, most entertaining dudes on this team. To have a guy like that, it makes your job a lot easier."
The Raptors locker room is one of the happier places you'll find in the NBA these days. After years of sub-mediocrity, they emerged as a legit playoff team and will likely earn one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. That may not sound like much, but in their 18 previous years of existence, the Raptors had only five playoff seasons, winning just one round.
What's remarkable about the Raptors is how quickly they became a consistently good team. Not an elite team, but a solid one. They've taken care of the bad teams on their schedule and gone 7-5 against the Bulls, Nets and Wizards, while staying competitive most other nights with a top-10 defense and an unselfish offense.
"Nobody has egos on this team," Johnson said. "Everybody wants the same thing, which is winning. Everybody's levelheaded. Nobody has any vendettas. We're all about winning. It's not about who scores."
Their evolution has been well chronicled. DeRozan was an All-Star and Lowry has played like one. Ross developed into an athletic 3-and-D sidekick, prized center prospect Jonas Valanciunas has continued to develop and the Rudy Gay trade brought needed reinforcements to the reserve unit.
Yet Johnson's play has slid under the radar, mainly because he's doing the same things he's always done. He gets 11 points and 7 rebounds a night, while taking whatever defensive assignment Casey has for him. It's an entirely unglamorous role, but it suits him just fine.
"It's hard to find a word to define what Amir means to this team," DeRozan said. "Amir, man, he plays extremely hard. Amir's played through injuries. The only thing Amir cares about is being there for his teammates. That's it. Nothing else. He doesn't care about how many baskets he scores. He just cares about being there for his team and whatever he can do out there on that court he's willing to do. It's rare to find a teammate like that."
About as rare as finding a nine-year vet with 500 career games at the age of 26, but Johnson doesn't plan to slow down. "All I can say about it is, I guess I'll keep going until I can't go anymore."
OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim made headlines this week with his comments about the draft -- "If you go 15th in the draft, you’re nothing" -- and the coaching in the NBA -- "They don’t work with you up there. You’re either ready to play up there or you’re not."
Boeheim’s comments were unqualified, disingenuous and flat-out wrong. They also didn’t have the intended effect as Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis elected to enter the draft after his freshman season.
With the NCAA Tournament in full swing we’ve had yet another round of hand-wringing and nonsense-peddling from the well-paid adults who run college athletics. It’s predictable and tiresome, but the truth is that no one likes the one-and-done system.
Here’s the crux of the problem. The NBA incentivizes players to start the clock on their pro careers as quickly as possible. Extensions can be negotiated after three years in the league. Would you rather be working on your second contract at age 23 or your first? At least the first-round rookie contract offers some measure of security. Players drafted in the second round or not at all operate in a three- to four-year window with little or no guaranteed money.
The NBA would like to raise the age limit, which would be a win-win situation for the league in that players get two years of free national exposure before turning pro and it starts them on a later path to free agency. That’s the cynical view. The more optimistic one is that players would be better prepared to enter the league and the sport of basketball would benefit as a whole.
"It’s important to the NBA and important to basketball generally that there be strong college basketball," said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during his All-Star Weekend address. "It’s important to college basketball that there be strong youth basketball and strong AAU basketball. And I think we feel we have a responsibility at the NBA as the stewards of the game to ensure that the game is played the right way."
The problem is that a narrow rule that affects all players based solely on age doesn’t take into account unique circumstances. Everyone agrees that LeBron James and Dwight Howard were ready to play in the NBA as 18-year-olds, but they were exceptional cases. Some players have either no interest in attending college or a dire financial need. Others would happily attend college if it wasn’t such an obviously poor economic decision.
What’s needed is for someone, be it the NCAA, the NBA and/or the players union, to take a progressive stance on the issue. So, let’s talk draft reform. Real, honest reform. (Note: This plan is meant to provoke discussion, not serve as a final word.)
1. Age limit: Allow players an opportunity to declare for the draft at the age of 18, but make it possible to attend college and play basketball for a minimum of two years or until they’re 20 years old whether they are drafted or not.
This is a modified version of the Major League Baseball system that allows players to get drafted out of high school or go to college, where they don’t become draft eligible again until their 21st birthday. If it’s good enough for baseball, why wouldn’t it work for basketball?
Part of the league’s rationale for enacting the one-and-done system was to get GMs out of high school gyms. A noble thought, but most scouts are already familiar with the best high school prospects. Perhaps a better solution would be reforming the AAU system, which is a whole different conversation but a significant part of the equation.
2. First round picks: Allow an 18-year-old chosen in the first round to have the option of playing college basketball for a minimum of two years, while allowing the team that drafts him to retain his rights.
Teams draft European prospects all the time with the idea of stashing them overseas for a year or two while they develop. When they’re ready to play, they sign a rookie contract and begin their careers. This is the same principle.
As with European players, teams would be under no obligation to eventually sign the player if they get hurt or don’t pan out. Unlike Euros, teams would have to relinquish or trade the rights once the player decides to turn pro so he doesn’t remain in limbo. Retaining draft rights provides some measure of protection for teams using one of their most valuable resources, while having the added bonus of increasing exposure for the college game and introducing a new wrinkle to the draft.
3. Rookie Contracts: Eliminate restricted free agency and increase the length of the first-round rookie contract for an 18-year-old to five years with team options on the final two years, while making a first-round contract for players age 20 and older three years before hitting free agency with a team option on the final year.
Perhaps six- and four-year contracts, or even six and three-year deals would be a better alternative, but consider it a starting point toward removing the incentive to begin the free agency clock on a pro career sooner rather than later.
4. Second-round picks: Allow 18-year-old players drafted in the second round to be eligible to play college basketball for a minimum of two years, whereupon the team would have an exclusive window to negotiate a rookie contract before the draft up to the value of the top overall pick that year. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement, the player returns to the draft pool.
Consider the case of Rashard Lewis. He declared for the draft out of high school in 1998 and then watched in horror as he fell all the way to the second round. Lewis barely played as a rookie, but by the end of his second season it was pretty obvious that he belonged in the league.
Imagine that Lewis, having had his draft-day dream turn into a nightmare, instead elected to take a scholarship from Florida State where he receives All-America honors and leads the Seminoles to the Final Four. He turns pro after his sophomore season and the Sonics are more than happy to offer him a guaranteed rookie contract. If they can’t agree on a deal, he goes back into the draft.
5. Allow undrafted 18-year-olds to play in college for a minimum of two years before re-entering the draft pool.
This one is self-explanatory. Do we really want to penalize kids for getting bad advice or having delusions of grandeur and unrealistic expectations?
Let’s have the conversation. Simply raising the age limit does little to alter the dynamic.
Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week
MONDAY Raptors at Heat
Thursday’s loss to the Pacers all but relegated Miami to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference in a race the Heat could have handled if they had been able to get their act together down the stretch. Since beating the Bobcats back on March 3, the Heat have gone 6-8 and lost games on the road to teams like the Celtics and Pelicans, while relying even more on LeBron James to carry the offense. All along they’ve said they know how to turn it on when it counts, but they’re beginning to lose the benefit of the doubt.
TUESDAY Warriors at Mavericks
After this game the Mavericks have a four-game road trip and play five of their final seven away from Dallas. That’s the bad news. The good part is three of those four games on the trip are against the Lakers, Sacramento and Utah. More good news: They get San Antonio and Phoenix at home before finishing up with the Grizzlies in Memphis. As much as anyone can control their destiny in this three-team race for two spots, it’s the Mavs.
WEDNESDAY Clippers at Suns
Like Dallas, the Suns play the majority of their stretch-run away from home. Unlike the Mavs, that slate includes games at Portland, San Antonio and yup, Dallas. They do get the Grizzlies at home during the final week of the season in what’s basically a round robin tournament. Of the three, the Suns look like the team that will be left out, but they’ve been proving everyone wrong all season.
THURSDAY Spurs at Thunder
This is the beginning of a difficult stretch that has the Thunder playing San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix and the Clippers. If they’re going to make a final push for the top seed it has to start here, especially if the Spurs are resting players.
FRIDAY Thunder at Rockets
Patrick Beverley tore his meniscus, which is awful for the Rockets, who have relied on his defensive pressure to cover up some of their poor perimeter tendencies. (Looking at you, James Harden.)
SATURDAY Bulls at Wizards
What can we expect from the Wizards in the playoffs? Ordinarily this would be the point where your faithful correspondent would throw out some numbers and observations and make some kind of salient point, but here’s the truth: I have no earthly idea. The Wizards have been OK without Nene, but it’s hard to see them doing something spectacular without their big man. They match up well with Brooklyn and Chicago, but not so much against Toronto. They’re basically a .500 team both home and away. As we head into the postseason, the Wizards could either be disruptive or face a quick exit and neither outcome would be that much of a surprise.
SUNDAY Grizzlies at Spurs
The Grizz play five of their final nine games against non-playoff teams and get the added bonus of playing the Sixers. This game looms as a huge test and it will be interesting to see how the Spurs play it if they have their own business wrapped up by this point.
The ListConsumable NBA thoughts
The San Antonio Spurs don’t get the credit they deserve. We all know this, but we rarely take the time to try and figure them out anymore. They’re ageless, timeless and inevitable. That’s a compliment but it also does them a disservice. So, here are five reasons why the Spurs have remained awesome.
1. They once again have a top-five defense.
The Spurs just do everything well. They make it hard to score without fouling and clean the glass on the inevitable miss. Their predictability is their greatest strength, but we’ve become so accustomed to the Spurs doing things correctly that we forget that it’s still really hard to do all those things. Their defense is also the biggest reason they’ve been able to maintain their impressive play in a season that has included injuries to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter.
2. Tim Duncan has stayed healthy.
The Spurs injuries have been mostly annoying this season. Parker and Ginobili have each missed a dozen games. Leonard sat out 15, while Splitter has played almost a thousand fewer minutes than he did last season. But Duncan keeps rolling along. There have been only three other 37-year-olds who have produced a PER over 21 playing 29 minutes a night: Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Stockton. You can keep expecting Duncan to be great or you can marvel at his longevity. We choose to marvel.
3. Oh hey, aren’t you Manu Ginobili?
Manu isn’t Manu anymore. Manu should retire. That was the mantra we heard throughout the postseason and it wasn’t without validity. Ginobili’s playoff performance was filled with high highs and raggedly lows, but this year Manu has been back to his sublime self. He was especially important when Parker missed time with injuries.
4. Kawhi Leonard is on the verge.
He may not have attained star status quite yet, but Leonard has continued to improve his game and it’s no coincidence that the Spurs really took off once he returned to the lineup.
5. Marco Belinelli has been fantastic.
The journeyman shooter was the Spurs’ key offseason acquisition and quite naturally he’s having the best season of his career. Belinelli is making almost 44 percent of his shots from behind the arc and has a True Shooting Percentage of .613. That’s what happens when you join the Spurs, right? Not always. Credit the system, but don’t forget to credit the player.
ICYMIor In Case You Missed It
James Herbert explains how the Grizzlies got back on their grind.
Won’t anyone think of the basketball PhDs?
We celebrated the '90s with Retro Week including pieces on the Sonics, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and the rule changes that helped define the modern game.
If you grew up reading SLAM you’ll want to check out this week’s Drive & Kick with Russ Bengtson.
Drew Garrison looked at the NBA’s top lineups and came to some interesting conclusions.
Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs
"It was awful." -- Knicks president Phil Jackson after his team gave up 51 points (51!) in the third quarter in a loss to the Lakers.
Reaction: That was the most candor we’ve heard from a Knicks executive since Donnie Walsh left. That candor represents some measure of progress for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise and is indicative of the overhaul Jackson faces in his new job. Good thing he’s got a basketball PhD.
"I’m one of those guys that just want to win. We play the game and make a lot of money, but this is our career and me personally, I want to win. I want to play for a winning team, I want to win a championship. At the end day, right now, the trade deadline is over and I’m just trying to develop guys and rebuild the culture." -- Sixers forward Thaddeus Young.
This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary
Swaggy celebrates a miss. He has become a self-parody in the best sense of the term.
Heckuva shot, buddy.