James Johnson was discussing his versatility, his ability to shoot the 3, attack the rim, clean the glass and defend every position on the floor when Hassan Whiteside stuck his head into the conversation.
“Tell them how you got the handle on a string,” Whiteside said.
“It’s yo-yoish,” Johnson cracked.
Johnson is the Miami Heat’s Swiss army knife on both ends. While he is inventing ways to score – from the arc, on a put back, off a crossover that sends his defender sprawling, on an up-and-under – or guarding every position on the floor, Johnson is the Heat’s most pleasant surprise this season roller coaster season and he’s climbing to the top of the league list of most improved players.
In fact, Johnson is so versatile that guard Goran Dragic paid him the ultimate compliment.
“I don’t know if there’s another guy in the league – maybe LeBron and him – who can play the position one to five,” Dragic said making the comparison to LeBron James.
‘King’ James Johnson. It has a ring to it.
Johnson posted his season – and Heat highs – in consecutive games this weekend with back-to-back 26 point games at Brooklyn and Philadelphia. He added 12 rebounds in the two games combined, the first extending the Heat’s winning streak to 13 games before it was snapped in the loss to the 76ers. Those games followed a 20-point night in Milwaukee, giving Johnson three straight games of at least 20 points for the first time this season.
In his last eight games Johnson is averaging 18 points, while shooting 58 percent, 5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.9 blocks.
And there are games like he had at Chicago on Jan. 27 where Johnson scored just six points but had nine rebounds and nine assists.
“I love where he’s going,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We want to continue to be open to where he can get to next. Hopefully we’re not going to stop here hopefully there’s another level or two or three whatever it may be that he can get too.
He fills in so many gaps off the bench with the energy, the toughness. We play him literally one through five defensively but offensively, too, so you see his versatility. He’s in the best shape of his career.”
Johnson, 29, spent seven years wandering around the league after being taken 16th overall out of Wake Forest in 2009 by the Bulls. He made five stops (two with Toronto) before signing the largest contract of his career, $4 million for one season, with the Heat, which turned out to be the best – and most lucrative – decision of his life.
Johnson, who should at least triple his salary next season, credits Spoelstra and the Heat for starting to reach his potential. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds he was pigeon holed as a big man who needed to throw around bodies and, as a second-degree black belt, protect his teammates. Now he is showing the skills that should have landed him in the NBA Skills Challenge during All-Star weekend, while still having his teammates’ backs.
“I knew I had an upside, but it just was always in a box, in a role,” Johnson said. “I wanted to play. I always stuck to my role, but I never stopped working on my all-around game.”
Johnson’s emergence puts the Heat in a bit of a bind. Miami must now decide if it is going to use a major chunk of its cap money on re-signing Johnson.
Johnson’s namesake, Tyler Johnson, and fellow bench partner (Spoelstra has resisted the temptation to start either saying his likes the consistency of bringing both off the bench) said this is not new to those to have tracked James Johnson throughout his career.
“I knew that,” Tyler said about James’ versatility, “it’s something you all are just finding out.
“He’s such a mismatch on both ends of the court. You can’t play a stretch four against JJ. He can also battle with big guys. His versatility is. .. There’s not a lot of players like him in the league.”
No, but one resides in Cleveland and once wore the same uniform Johnson wears now.
When James Johnson was asked about Dragic comparing him to LeBron, he smiled, stumbled and was lost for words.
“I appreciate him for saying such a great thing,” he finally said.