I spoke with James Johnson at Atlanta Hawks media day back in October when he was just another former first-round pick trying to convince another team – his fourth, to be exact – that he was good enough for another shot.
Johnson played college ball with Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, so I thought he had a leg up on Cartier Martin for the last roster spot. Then the preseason came and Johnson looked – for lack of a better word – terrible. He insisted on bringing the ball upcourt on several occasions and had two hilarious turnovers against the Heat in the preseason that made me question whether he even wanted a spot on the roster.
Johnson was eventually cut after four preseason games in which he scored a combined six points on 1-for-6 shooting.
Five months later, Johnson has found new life with the grit-n-grind Grizzlies. He fits right into their defensive identity by utilizing a ruthless ball-hawking mindset.
One thing he brings to the table that they didn’t have before, however, is his first-class athleticism:
As Zach Lowe pointed out on Grantland several weeks ago, Johnson is doing it all for the Grizzlies. To this day, he is the only player in the league who has assisted on nearly a fifth of his team’s points, compiled over 50 percent of his team’s blocks and has grabbed at least 10 percent of his team’s rebounds while on the court.
The only player close to him in numbers with these specific responsibilities is Tim Duncan.
Since adding Johnson to the roster in mid-December, the Grizzlies have gone 19-10 and have re-entered the playoff race.
For the season, the Grizzlies’ offensive and defensive ratings have been at about 102.
However, with Johnson on the court, their offensive rating climbs to 104 (on par with Golden State) and their defensive rating drops to 98.3 (on par with Chicago).
So, for perspective, Memphis plays about six points better per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court.
To identify that in comparative terms, think of it this way: The Grizzlies at their norm are about the 20th most efficient offense and 10th most efficient defense in the league. With Johnson on the court, they improve to a top-12 offense and top-three defense.
Now, it would be lazy to give all of the credit for Memphis’ turnaround to Johnson. Marc Gasol’s return from injury certainly helped both the offense and defense improve, and adding Courtney Lee in a trade with the Celtics has been a total success.
Still, it’s pretty shocking to see the same Johnson I watched in October transform into an integral piece for a potential playoff team.
Now, on to the rankings.
DROPOUTS: Mo Williams (5).
FIVE TO WATCH: James Johnson, F, Memphis; Tyreke Evans, G, New Orleans; Ramon Sessions, G, Charlotte; Rodney Stuckey, G, Detroit; Mike Scott, F, Atlanta.
OTHER RANKINGS: Rookie | Most Improved | MVP | Power Rankings
Jacob Eisenberg is a student at Emory University, spending the spring semester abroad in Brazil, and covers the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Check out his website and click here to follow him on Twitter.