James Johnson looked right at home in the third-floor practice facility at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, pumping out some reps in the adjoining weight room after morning shoot-around.
He emerged wearing Miami Heat warm-up gear and far less facial hair than he’d had when he last suited up for the Toronto Raptors in May. With his new Miami teammates shooting all around him, Johnson shook the hand of every Toronto media member there to meet him on the day of his first game against the Raps.
“That’s the part of being a journeyman I guess – seeing new opportunities, seeing new organizations and going against old teams or teams you previously played for,” said Johnson, 29, who has lost a little weight, but declined to say how much, since signing a one-year free-agent deal with the Heat in July. “I fit great [in Miami]. I slimmed down to fit a little more. It feels good.”
Johnson was a source of fascination for many Raptors fans during his two stints in Toronto from 2010-2015. The power forward with a black belt in karate provided intriguing physicality. He was sometimes called upon to defend the NBA’s biggest stars and he could unleash an astonishing dunk that could change the tone of a game.
Fans would debate wildly over the true potential of this 6-foot-9, 250-pounder, who would play both the three and four positions. They’d discuss whether the Raptors were getting enough out of him or giving him sufficient playing time. When his minutes dipped in Toronto last season as DeMarre Carroll and Luis Scola came into the fold, Johnson at one point tweeted, “Mood: Under-utilized.”
Johnson, who has also played for Chicago, Sacramento and Memphis, is in his eighth NBA season. He said he had mixed feelings about leaving Toronto, and had enjoyed the city and being part of the team’s best-ever playoff run. He was asked if he did everything he could as a player in Toronto.
“Yeah, everything I was in control of doing,” Johnson said. “I can only control what I can control and I felt like I tried to do that as best as possible.”
Raptors star guard DeMar DeRozan had glowing things to say about the player he used to face daily in practice.
“I give a lot of credit to James,” DeRozan said. “I never talk about it, but in practices, training camp, he always guarded me and you’ve got to be real creative and real crafty to be able to get shots off against him. I kind of, I wouldn’t say mastered it against him, but I thought I did all right against him. It’s hard to find guys that big, that athletic to do the things he’s able to do, and it helped me a lot.”
DeRozan was asked if he thinks Johnson is misunderstood.
“For sure. Without a doubt. 100 per cent,” DeRozan replied. “I think if people really knew him and really understood the type of person – he’s loyal, loving. Everything about JJ is great. He jokes all day. It’s just people think because he’s a black belt, he crazy.”
Johnson played in just 57 of Toronto’s 82 regular-season games last year – 32 of them starts – averaging five points, 2.2 rebounds and 16 minutes a game. He played in 10 of the Raptors’ playoff games, averaging 9.8 minutes, three points and 1.5 boards.
The player who had been the No. 16 overall draft pick in 2009 is so far coming off the bench nightly for Miami, averaging 3.8 points and 4.3 rebounds over 20.3 minutes.
“He’ll give them toughness, that big body that can go from the three to the four positions,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a freak athlete.”
Johnson had memorable moments as a Raptor, such as the time he died his hair bright red. The moment that made him a cult hero was his flashy tomahawk dunk in 2014 over Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, followed by an equally ostentatious snarl. His postgame comments that night became the stuff of novelty T-shirts: “That was nasty right? I cocked that joint back and banged on him.”
“Oh, that’s got to be easily top-three, for sure, because the face he did afterwards,” said DeRozan, when asked if it makes his list of favourite moments from teammates. ”Everything about it was great.”Report Typo/Error