When it comes to free agency, what a difference a year makes for Miami Heat forward James Johnson

At age 30, Heat forward James Johnson is looking at his biggest payday in his career. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

James Johnson couldn’t even crack the top 100 a year ago.

In fact, not only did SB Nation have Johnson as the 117th best free agent on the market, he barely made the starting five among players named Johnson. … Coming in behind Amir, Tyler, Joe and Wesley.

How things have changed after a year in the Miami Heat system.

Although Johnson’s ranking appears a bit low – 40th according the Hoops Hype – at least it’s 77 spots higher than a year ago. And The Vertical ranks Johnson 10th among power forwards one spot behind Memphis’ JaMychal Green and two behind OKC’s Taj Gibson.

Johnson, 30, made the best decision of his career last July when he signed with the Heat for $4 million. And just as fortuitous was the deal being for one year, making him an unrestricted free agent this summer. The 6-foot-8 forward had a career year, displaying his versatility that allowed him to establish career highs in points (12.8 per game), rebounds (4.9), assists (3.6), blocks (1.1), 3-point field goals (87), 3-point FG percentage (.340) and games played (76).

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And he became Miami’s go-to guy late in the season as coach Erik Spoelstra put the ball in his hands during the final seconds of two crucial road games, both resulting in baskets, one by Hassan Whiteside in Detroit off a Johnson miss and the other with Johnson spinning into the paint in Washington and scoring on a finger roll.

“What James Johnson showed was another playmaker, a guy that could do a lot more than anybody ever thought he could do and he can get better,” Heat president Pat Riley said following the season.

“My conversation with him the other day is that, ‘There’s another level for you efficiency wise at the end of a game.’ If somebody is going to put the ball in your hands at the end of the game and they want you to be that player then there’s another level. And he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

Johnson’s year was so good he could receive votes for sixth man, most improved and defensive player of the year.

Still, Hoops Hype has Johnson behind players like Dewayne Dedmon (No. 32), Andre Roberson (No. 33), Shaun Livingston (37) and Aron Baynes (39).

Johnson is in position for his first big, long term contract and the Heat have indicated they will do everything they can to make sure he remains in Miami. He made about $17 million combined his first eight years in the NBA. Now, he could triple that number over the next four years.

“We thought that his skill set could be interesting with the way we play, but you never know,” Spoelstra said. “It took him committing to himself and his craft and to this profession like he never has before. And the timing was right. It was a beautiful thing to see. It was one of the most gratifying things I’ve seen in my coaching tenure, to see somebody that has been kicked around and had dreams and didn’t necessarily know the path to be able to get to the dreams and become the player that he always envisioned and he wanted to become and had the potential to become.”

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