Versatile forward James Johnson will return to Miami Heat

James Johnson (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Even with a brief flirtation with the Utah Jazz, the sense was James Johnson never was leaving Miami.

Johnson, the versatile power forward, and the Heat agreed Thursday to a four-year contract for $60 million, including a player option, assuring that the team’s biggest breakout player from last season will remain in Miami. The deal, confirmed by the Palm Beach Post, was not unexpected as Johnson was  not linked to another team until Utah’s name came up Tuesday after Gordon Hayward agreed to sign with the Celtics. Additionally, Johnson was part of the Heat contingent that met with Hayward on Saturday in Miami.

But while Hayward decided to join Boston, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Johnson is remaining in South Florida.

The Heat have recovered nicely after losing Hayward by holding onto their top two free agents, Johnson and shooting guard Dion Waiters, who agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal Wednesday.

In addition, Miami also signed former Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk.

Johnson, 30, came to the Heat a year ago on a one-year, $4 million deal and put himself in position to ink the most lucrative contract of his eight year career. He had a breakout season, averaging career-highs in points (12.8), rebounds (4.9) and assists (3.6) while playing an important role off Miami’s bench.

In post-season award voting, Johnson was fifth for Sixth Man of The Year and sixth for Most Improved Player.

Johnson, though, did start the final five games of the season and became the Heat’s go-to guy because of his ability to create his own shot. Coach Erik Spoelstra put the ball in his hands with the game on the line late in the season at Detroit and Washington. Johnson missed a jumper against the Pistons that Hassan Whiteside rebounded and put back for the game-winner. He hit the game-winner against the Wizards on a spinning move at the rim.

Now,  Johnson is expected to become Miami’s starting power forward.

And as much as Johnson improved last season, the Heat believe there is more room to grow.

“He can get better,” Heat president Pat Riley said following the season. Riley added he told Johnson there was another level he could reach efficiency wise at the end of the game.

“He knows exactly what I’m talking about,” Riley said.

Johnson said many times the Heat are the first team that did not “put him in a box,” allowing him to show his versatility.

Johnson displayed skills that could be compared to Golden State’s versatile power forward Draymond Green. He can facilitate the offense as a point forward and play center when the Heat go small. His defensive skills allowed him to guard every position on the floor and Johnson responded by holding the man he was guarding to 5.0 percent below his normal field goal percentage. Among power forwards whose opponents took at least 10 shots per game, only Green, the Defensive Player of the Year, was better.

Following the season, Johnson continued to work out with his teammates at AmericanAirlines Arena, never acting as if he would not be a part of the team’s future.

During an appearance on WTVJ-Miami’s Sports Final last month, Johnson said the Heat gave him “the stage to work on and the opportunity to go out there and to become the best player I can be. They definitely gave me that stepping stone or eight stepping stones.”

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