Today I head back to Tobacco Road, putting the Wake Forest Demon Deacons best player, James Johnson, under the microscope for a complete breakdown of his intriguing game.
Johnson played against elite competiton in the Atlantic Coast Conference for head coach Dino Gaudio at Wake Forest, and decidely held his own against many of the best teams in the country, in some of the very toughest venues to play in.
Before I get too far into this evaluation, I want to mention something positive about the Wake Forest kids and their character that I forgot to write about when doing the profile of Jeff Teague.
Both Johnson and Teague were recruited to the Winston-Salem campus by the very popular coach Skip Prosser. Prosser was well respected and highly thought of by his peers and former players as one of the truly nice guys in the coaching business, which at the college level is often full of sharks, hangers-on, shady boosters and agents, and the like. Prosser was a long time protege of another coach who fit that profile, a man named Pete Gillen.
Prosser died in his office of a heart attack while these kids were in school, and it devastated the community of Winston-Salem and the entire college basketball community. Despite that, winning is what it is all about for so many college coaches, and so the back channels were soon opened to these kids at Wake Forest by those suggesting that they abandon their teammates and school at this sign of trouble, in the programs moment of sadness and despair.
However, led by the high level kids of character at Wake Forest, which included both Teague and Johnson, I don't believe one player transferred to another program. Instead, in the face of adversity, those kids did what they promised Coach Prosser they would do, which is to play hard and be good students and representatives of Wake Forest. In a situation where their own families, advisers, and big time coaches were trying to get the elite players there to quit, they perservered and stayed there, and eventually led the Demon Deacons to the #1 ranking midway through the season.
It ended up that the teams own weaknesses couldn't be overcome, and they struggled later in the season, and eventually suffered a very bad loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But that loss doesn't diminish the fact that all the kids at Wake Forest did the right thing by sticking together in the memory of their fallen coach.
Let's move on to talk about James Johnson's strengths and weaknesses.
Most kids in this draft are not the most well rounded players....guys either seem to have potential to excel on the offensive end of the floor but be bad defenders, or have high level defensive talent with major holes as offensive players. Johnson exhibits some of those traits as well, but he is more well rounded than most of the kids in this area of the draft....he has alot of different skills to bring to the table.
His biggest skills are going to be as an offensive player I think, so let's discuss his game at that end of the floor first.
The first thing that stands out to me is this: Johnson just "moves" so well up and down the floor. He just looks like a player who understands his body, understands how to get to where he needs to go. He has extremely good balance, and perhaps most impresively to me he has great footwork in running....he takes giant steps, so while it doesn't look like he is sprinting that fast, he covers a ton of ground changing ends. From a kineisology standpoint, he has been the most impressive player I've done a profile of to date. Johnson just fits the "eye test"....he simply LOOKS like he will be a good player, if that makes any sense.
His game is extremely well rounded from an offensive standpoint. Johnson uses his left hand better than most players at his size, and is capable of finishing or dunking the basketball with either hand, which is not a small skill...Johnson can finish in traffic very well, and that skill translates to the NBA.
He has a nicely developed mid range game. He may not get all the way to the rim, but his very nice balance and footwork give him the advantage of being able to turn and face at the foul line or mid post area after catching the ball with his back to the basket and be a scoring weapon. He has the "jab step" move down well, and he has the mid range one dribble pull up jumper already in his arsenal. When Johnson catches the ball with his back to the basket and does what some coaches call a "Sikma pivot", (named after the former Sonic Center who had impeccable post player footwork), i.e. using a reverse pivot to create space between himself and his man, he is exceptional at staying low and quick to the ground, enabling him to rise up fluidly and smoothly to shoot or to make a quick one dribble move.
As a low post player, Johnson does everything you'd want a player to be able to do, and he does it at an above average level. Again, his balance, timing, and footwork is very impressive. He does a really good job of placing his "power post foot" IN BETWEEN the feet of the defender guarding him, which is the ideal set up to shoot a fadeaway, or to gain leverage enough to spin either direction to score. Getting a post player to do this is not an easy or natural act to teach them, and in fact I believe that post play in general is very poorly taught at all levels of the game right now. Johnson has a skill in this area that no one in this draft has in being able to do that consistently.
Having great footwork helps Johnson catch the ball very very deep inside, letting him score with ease even against bigger defenders. Johnson just uses leverage very well. Johnson seals defenders on his back with a wide target, and does a good job of showing a target hand to show post feeders where he wants the ball. He didn't always get the ball in college to Wake Forest playing without a true point guard and playing way too disorganized and frenetic in my opinion, but in a more organized program I think he would have put up pretty big scoring numbers in college, more than the 15 or so he averaged last season.
Johnson can make the easy pass out of the post well enough, and he may in fact be a great post passer....but we don't know that yet because Wake Forest didn't move well once Johnson got the ball. That along with the fact that teams in the NCAA don't have the sophisticated double teams that NBA teams play with leave us with a mystery a little bit of how well Johnson will read cutters going off of him...we just don't know yet. My guess is that Johnson is going to be an above average passing post player, which will be important to him because I think he will end up being a good enough offensive post player that teams will have to double him some to get the ball out of his hands, particularly against second unit big men early in his career.
I think Johnson will be an absolute offensive force playing in the high post. If a team has a low post presence in the game with Johnson, and chooses to use him in this way, he projects to be hard to guard in this area of the floor. It's easy to see him playing in a high post area, creatively facing up and playing a high/low game with Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard, or one of the other really good back to the basket players in the league. A team like Orlando could REALLY use a player who could play the high post like this in order to have a different way to feed the ball to Howard right now.....Johnson will excel I think in doing that for someone.
Two things Johnson is going to have to do better to be a really solid/stud level NBA scorer in the low post are learn to "re-post" much much more aggressively after making a pass back out, and making more foul shots. I LOVED watching DeJuan Blair re-post guys almost into the basket support for Pittsburgh, and was hoping to see Johnson do that as well, since initially he does such a great job getting position. Alas, more often than not Johnson would make a perimeter pass and either just stand flat footed waiting to see what would happen, or drift to the perimeter himself.
Some people are going to want to use Johnson as a perimeter player more than I would. I love that he has skills out there, and he definitely is a weapon on the perimeter against slower/bigger defenders. But I just like him better offensively when he stays inside a bit more than he has shown in the past....I don't want him to fall in love with the 3 point shot, which he has shown no tendency to do as of now but depending on how he is coached, he might do in the future. That's something to keep an eye on, especially if he ends up in Indiana.
Defensively, Johnson is just ok. If he was outstanding defensively already, he would be gone way before we pick anyway, so I guess in some way that might be a blessing.
There is definitely a school of thought that Johnson might be stuck in between positions, and while I see his weaknesses as easily as the next guy, I don't see that as being true. Johnson to me clearly is a post player, and not a bigger wing. That being said, I am only really interested in how well he can defend the low post areas, screen/rolls as a "hedger", his perimeter ability to contest jump shots against perimeter "4 players" and how he is in help.
For those who play and project Johnson as a wing, I think you'll be disappointed in his defense so much you won't be able to play. As much as I love his balance and agility in most things offensive, Johnson just doesn't slide his feet side to side that well. Part of it is weight issues (Johnson is a little heavy and that needs to be monitored), and part of it is probably effort and concentration. His biggest issue is that he stands too upright after about 3 slides, so big time wing guys are going to be able to take him off the dribble.
Of course, don't have him guard guys like that and you don't have that issue.
Instead, I think the best thing to do is to play him at the 4 spot on both ends. He will be able to guard your normal post playing back to the basket power forwards, and he will be able to chase and contest the jump shooting power forwards in the league well enough that he won't be a liability.
He doesnt have the defensive potential anywhere near Earl Clark, but he also doesnt have his effort/attitude/liabilities either. Clark is a defensive game changer if he pans out, Johnson is more likely to be an average individual defender who plays hard and plays within a team scheme.
Johnson does need to be taught better, emphasize more effort , get in better physical shape, and learn to play the drive better. If he is stuck on the wing, a team that "funnels" drivers into the MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR TO HELP,( instead of to the baseline like the Pacers do) will have more success with him. Johnson has the strength, balance, and footwork to play a driver to force him to one direction within the scheme of an overall plan, but he wont have the ability to play him straight up and shut a guy down, like a Ron Artest used to have.
Against a driver, Johnson won't always rise up and contest a pull up jumper hard enough. That is a league wide problem anyway, and the Pacers suck at that as a whole, so he'd fit right in. We only have Granger and Rush who occasionally do that well, and if Johnson ends up here I would home that someone on our team or our staff would emphasize to him that his defense has got to improve for him to be an NBA all star level player.
In the post, Johnson is a better defender. He has power to fight for position, and good footwork to prevent easy passes to be made to his guy. At only 6'8" he is a few inches shorter than is ideal, but hopefully his long arms can abate that some. He again won't be a defensive stopper in the low post, but he won't be a giant hole either. In general, he will make a guy struggle to catch the ball, fight him for the spot, then hold his ground and force a player to make a shot over him with his arms high. A great defender would be bigger than Johnson here AND be able to leap up into the air and contest the shot, but Johnson doesnt possess those skills.
As a help defender, Johnson is just ok again. He can be a shot blocker if he doesnt have to move too far to make the play. His lack of ability to slide his feet well combined with an overall lack of natural defensive instincts makes him a helper who gets there a half step too late sometimes. I do believe that Johnson has some upside in this area, and can be coached up....the physical skills and abilities are there.
Johnson averaged 8.5 rebounds a game last year playing 30 minutes a night or so. This is impressive to me considering how much time he spent on the perimeter for Wake Forest, more than he will in the pros if he ends up being the type player I think he is: A versatile quicker post player instead of a bigger wing.
Not much to complain about here with Johnson. He rebounds strong, on balance, and with 2 hands. You could nit pick a bit about his lack of "force" sometimes when he boards, but that is a small thing. He has good instincts to rebound even though he isn't the tallest guy or best leaper. What stands out most to me are 2 things: He seems to often be the first guy in the air to get a rebound, and his great ability to rebound the ball and dribble up the floor himself.
Getting into the air quickly and first is much more important than than being big and tall. On the Dan Dakich show yesterday, I heard him quote the great Jerry West about this very topic. West said a key scouting thing for him was too always look at guys who seemed to jump first in a crowd, as that showed "quick twitch" muscles, athleticism, and anticipation. I think Johnson has those type of rebounding and muscular talents.
The ability to dribble the ball up after a rebound is very important on a running team. Johnson's superior ballhandling in this area lets a team be less reliant on its point guard to bring the ball up, and changes the "geometry" of a team's fast break and early offense potentially. In a perfect world, I'd rather have my bigs make great 2 handed outlet passes to a quicker player out ahead, but in lieu of that, being able to bring it up yourself has its advantages as well.
How would Johnson fit onto the Pacers?
Long term I think he might be a great fit. Short term might be different. Let's discuss it, using the following criteria:
1. Can he play in a line up alongside Murphy?
Using Murphy as a "5" and Johnson as a "4" works on offense somewhat, but defensively Murphy would get killed by anyone with a decent center. I don't like the combination defensively....of course, any combination involving Murphy and a smaller player is going to be limited.
2. Can you play him alongside Hibbert/Foster as Murphy's backup?
Absolutely, but if Murphy plays 32 minutes a night, that just leaves 16 more for Johnson to play as a post player.
3. Can he guard the "perimeter 4's" that are becoming so popular in the league?
Yes, I think he can do a credible job, better than anyone we have probably, although that isn't saying much.
4. Can he play at the same time as Granger/Rush?
Absolutely, which means Johnson is a better player for the future than the present perhaps.
5. Can he give us any minutes backing up Granger/Rush?
Maybe in limited spots, but unlike most analysts I like him better inside. Offensively yes he can play as a wing backup, and since we are talking about only having to defend bench wing players.......maybe I am underrating him as a potential 3rd/4th wing player.
Basically, the ideal player for him to play with inside for some of his minutes would be a Marcus Camby, Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler type, who can protect the rim yet not get in his way too much offensively. He doesn't need help like that all the time, but a player like that along with Hibbert in a rotation would be a better fit for Johnson's short term game than Murphy's unique skills.
So where does all that above leave us?
It leaves us with this: I think if I were laying odds today, this very minute, that James Johnson is going to be an Indiana Pacer on draft night. He seems to fit the criteria we can expect the front office to value. If we pass or make another move that means a bigger player isn't needed, then I think Johnson goes to either Pheonix at #14, Detroit at #15, or Chicago at #16. Chicago makes a ton of sense for Johnson's game, and would likely mean a Tyrus Thomas trade is forthcoming from the windy city.
The Pacers probably like his maturity, well rounded game, ability to score in multiple ways on the perimeter and in the low post, and toughness. Johnson is just a sophomore at Wake Forest, but he is 22 years old, 2 years older than his classmates.
It's also interesting for me to note that while I often say that a particular player would be liked by Coach O'Brien but not Bird, or vice versa, I think in this case Johnson is a player they likely agree on and both really like.
If the Pacers select Johnson, it also means that it is likely that the Pacers will retain both TJ Ford and Jarrett Jack as a point guard combination next year, since they will be passing on a high quality opportunity to draft a potential replacement for one of them.
Who does Johnson remind you of in the league currently, and in the past?
Those who don't think as highly of Johnson as I do might say players playng today like Leon Powe or Ryan Gomes. In our recent past, some comparisons might also be to Al Harrington (minus the attitude) A past comparison guys who think Johnson is going to be mediocre might use would be Clarence Weatherspoon.
But I think Johnson is better than that, so here are mine:
Current NBA player comparable: David West, New Orleans Hornets
Past NBA comparable: Mark Aguirre
Again, the above is just my opinion.