James Johnson hopes he’s found an NBA home with the Miami Heat

MIAMI — When James Johnson signed a one-year contract worth $4 million with the Heat this past summer, expectations were low.

The 29-year-old forward averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 57 games with the Raptors last season. Those number didn’t bring much excitement.

But Johnson has quickly emerged as a key contributor for Miami.

Miami Heat forward James Johnson (16) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, in Denver. The Heat won 106-98. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Miami Heat forward James Johnson (16) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, in Denver. The Heat won 106-98. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

After shedding 24 pounds to get down to 8 percent body fat, Johnson’s versatility has shined through in his first season with the Heat. He’s proven to be interchangeable between the two forward spots and even logged some minutes at center in Monday’s win over the Wizards.

“I’ve always been the same player,” Johnson said. “I’ve just perfected my craft, grew up a little bit mentally, fixed my body thanks to the Miami Heat. From there, now I’m starting to flourish. Everything I could do, now I’m doing it faster, now I’m doing it stronger, and now I’m doing it longer.”

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Johnson is averaging career highs in points (10.1) and rebounds (4.7) in a bench role for Miami this season. And he’s doing it while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and a career-best 33.3 percent from three.

“He’s playing his best basketball,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson. “I think he’s in the best shape that he’s been, if not in the league, in a long time. He’s a very versatile player. We’ve had success with guys like that over the years where you can play him at a lot of different places on the court to try to expose the opponent’s defense and he really competes defensively. We like guys like that.”

“Competes defensively” is an understatement for what Johnson is doing at that end of the court. Johnson is holding players he’s defending to a team-best 33.5 percent shooting this season.

The more Johnson plays, the better the Heat play. He’s played 30 or more minutes in seven games this season and Miami (8-17) holds a 4-3 record in those games.

“He’s just an unbelievable athlete,” Goran Dragic said of Johnson. “He can do everything. He plays with passion. He can play multiple positions, put us in offense, he can score. That’s good to have.”

Johnson’s “do everything” game was on full display in Monday’s home win against Washington when he played as the Heat’s center for the final 39 seconds of the third quarter and the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, Johnson used his athleticism to win his matchup with Wizards center Jason Smith (7-0, 240).

It marked the first time Johnson has played center as a member of the Heat and the move by Spoelstra worked.

When Johnson’s time at center began, Miami trailed Washington 82-81. But the Heat went on to outscore the Wizards 23-17 during that stretch with Johnson at center and Hassan Whiteside on the bench on their way to the win.

“He’s a dynamic versatile player,” Spoelstra said of Johnson. “Whether you’re playing him at the five or the four, we just want to try to leverage his uniqueness, his versatility, and he showed that last night.”

It’s one of the reasons Spoelstra was a fan of Johnson before he even signed with the Heat. Spoelstra saw this type of potential in him if Johnson could get in better shape.

“The Heat said, ‘If you can get into this kind of shape — your weight at this and keep it there — we feel like you can play better and you’ll play for us,'” Johnson said of the organization’s message to him during free agency. “They weren’t wrong.”

It’s been a solid partnership so far. The Heat have kept up their end of the deal, and Johnson has worked to make sure he does the same.

“James has made that commitment and you’re seeing some results of that,” Spoelstra said. “And often times, to be fair, it just takes sometimes the right timing, the right place to be, the right age, the right team, the right fit. Sometimes it’s not right in other places.”

But it feels right in Miami.

And even though Johnson is on his way to earning a big raise as an unrestricted free agent next summer, he hopes he can stick around with the Heat. After switching teams five times over his eight-year NBA career, he’s looking for a home.

“Absolutely,” Johnson said if he feels like he’s found an NBA home in Miami. “I really hope so. I’m working for it and it would be a dream come true to stay here.”

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