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The True Value of the Underappreciated James Johnson

In a league full of superstars who command headlines with monster statistical performances and celebrity with endorsements off the court, the contributions of some very good NBA players go largely unnoticed.

The Toronto Raptors’ James Johnson, who’s among the most underappreciated players of the last two seasons, could be a captain of this group.

After spending a portion of the 2013-14 season in the D-League, Johnson joined the Memphis Grizzlies midway through the season and finished as one of their most efficient players.

His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 18.5 ranked second among Grizzlies that season, behind only Mike Conley. He was first in both Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) and overall Box Plus/Minus (BPM). And he was fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).

And yet, he was ninth on the Grizzlies in minutes per game.

We can run through the same gamut of catch-all efficiency metrics for his 2014-15 campaign with the Raptors. He was fourth in PER, first in DBPM, fourth in BPM and fourth in VORP.

And yet, he was ninth on the Raptors in minutes per game.

While there may be some value to the argument that limited minutes and a bench role can lead to greater efficiency, the disconnect between Johnson’s play and his playing time is too vast to ignore.

And when he was in a lineup with starters, it was generally to their benefit. With a couple exceptions, the Grizzlies’ top players (in terms of minutes) in ’13-14 and the Raptors’ top players in ’14-15 saw more success when they shared the floor with Johnson:

[infogram id=”james_johnsons_impact_on_teammates”]

Both last season’s Raptors and the ’13-14 Grizzlies had better offensive and defensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions) when Johnson was on the floor than when he was off.

His impact on the offensive end is a result of unselfishness and a willingness to make the right play (in Johnson’s case, typically a drive).

First, there’s the unselfishness. Johnson is a combo forward, a position that isn’t always associated with playmaking. But in his case, it’s been fairly common over the last two seasons.

His ’13-14 Assist Percentage (AST%) of 18.2 ranked third on the Grizzlies, behind Conley and Nick Calathes. In ’14-15, his AST% dropped to 11.4, but he was still fifth among Raptors and 26th among the 113 players who were 6’9″ or taller.

Because of his size and athleticism, Johnson’s drives require help at the rim, which typically draws a big man off his original assignment. When that happens, Johnson’s willing to make the drop-off pass to his big man or a kick-out to a shooter who’s just opened up off a rotation.

Speaking of drives, that’s typically the right play for Johnson, because he’s very hard to stop in that situation.

Among players who attempted at least three drives per game in ’14-15, Johnson’s field-goal percentage on drives of 63.7 ranked first (he was 35th out of 115 players in ’13-14).

He has a killer first step and solid handle for a player his size, and his explosiveness at the rim has been on display plenty of times over the last two seasons:

And as important as Johnson’s efficient offensive game was to the Grizzlies and Raptors, his defense is still his calling card.

Again, it’s his size and athleticism that makes him such a weapon on defense. And this time, he’s very much like some of his peers in the fraternity of combo forwards who can defend multiple positions.

One of the biggest benefits Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green provide to their teams is Swiss Army quality on D. They can switch all over the floor, spend time on the opposition’s best player (regardless of position) and clean up some of the mistakes of their teammates. Johnson can provide those things for the Raptors.

In addition to his ability to cover so much of the floor, Johnson also has very quick hands and feet, thanks in part to his background as a kickboxer. He can put himself in position and get his hands on a ball for a block or a steal in plays where that simply wouldn’t be possible for an average player.

As result, Johnson is one of just nine players in NBA history (minimum 300 games played) with a career Steal Percentage over two and a career Block Percentage over four:

Player STL% BLK%
James Johnson 2.2 4.3
Andrei Kirilenko 2.4 5.0
Oliver Miller 2.1 4.7
Hakeem Olajuwon* 2.4 5.4
Bo Outlaw 2.1 4.2
David Robinson* 2.1 5.7
Josh Smith 2.0 4.5
Tyrus Thomas 2.1 5.1
Ben Wallace 2.3 5.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/25/2015.

With numbers like the ones discussed here so readily available to today’s NBA executive, coach and fan, it’s tough to figure exactly why Johnson is so underappreciated.

ESPN recently revealed Nos. 200-400 in its #NBARank feature that endeavors to list all players in order of their general ability. Johnson came in at 254. One similar player in terms of size and style, Josh Smith, has yet to be revealed, meaning he’s in the top 200. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has been demonstratively better and he’s a year younger:

James Johnson 18.1 .194 .270 10.6 14.2 2.2 4.4 7.1 .146 0.9 2.5 3.4
Josh Smith 14.4 .222 .250 11.4 17.5 1.9 3.6 3.4 .033 -1.7 1.8 0.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/25/2015.

Several other comparisons could be made between Johnson and players ranked above him, but that might belabor the point.

Simply put, he has the ability to make his team better on both ends of the floor and can lead a defense. Some, maybe even most, don’t realize just how valuable and underappreciated he is.

Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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