Defense, for as much as it is touted, is a rather intangible element in basketball. Aside from a block that sails into the crowd or a steal, defense rarely shows up in highlights. Those are the visible results of defense. The rest is a form of the mundane for the casual observer: footwork, ball-hawking, boxing out, quick hands, help-side defense, anticipation, and body positioning. Offense is the flashy part of the game. That is where the highlights are made. Every player on the court plays defense, and just like offense, some are far better at it than others. However, good defenders are often overlooked in the NBA by casual observers because their contributions to the game cannot be neatly calculated in a box score.
In Toronto, James Johnson is an unsung defensive hero. Offensively he leaves much to be desired, except during a brief stint in the D-League, but that is not where he makes an impact on the game. His skills are finely honed in on defense above all else. He is doing everything he needs to, other than scoring, to keep himself in the rotation and Dwane Casey clearly approves. Through 13 games, Johnson has played approximately a third of the number of minutes he played all of last season with the Chicago Bulls and Raptors. Casey wants him in the game.
Johnson’s per game numbers are not terribly impressive, however, on a per 36 minutes basis they garner plenty of attention. Per 36 minutes he is averaging 5.3 defensive rebounds, two steals, and 2.4 blocks. These are some of the better numbers in the league for a perimeter forward. Johnson is tied for 13th in the league for total blocks and 15th for blocks per game at 1.5. It is not just his averages that are good, his percentage of defensive plays are good as well. While on the floor he grabs 16.4 percent of the available defensive rebounds, steals the ball on 2.9 percent of possessions, and has a block in 5.7 percent of the time which is good for seventh in the league. Both his steal and block percentages are the best on the team. When added together, Johnson creates a positive defensive play for the Raptors 25 percent of the time he is on the floor. These numbers translate into the best defensive rating on the team with a 97.
Despite those impressive numbers, Johnson is far from a perfect defender. He has trouble fighting through screens in order to keep pace with his man. This has the effect of him occasionally drifting through a play rather than trying to fight through the screen. However, when he does maneuver through a screen he has the ability to keep his body in front of the offensive player. Drifting also becomes an issue when the man Johnson is guarding is not in possession of the ball. In these situations, he has a tendency to watch the ball and hedge towards it rather than sticking with his assignment. This has the result of Johnson being forced to close out, when the ball is swung around to his man, over a longer distance than necessary.
Is it time to start placing Johnson in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion? That is probably premature. Yet, credit must be given where it is due. Under the tutelage of Casey, the Raptors are a much improved defensive squad. Last season they were dead last in the league in defensive rating. This season they are ranked 17th and Johnson is at the forefront of that defensive improvement. He will not contribute offensively for the Raptors, but as long as Johnson shows a commitment on the defensive end and a willingness to learn and improve, Casey will find minutes for the third year player. He might not be getting much attention for his defense now but if his play continues, it will be hard to ignore his contributions.