Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Amir Johnson. For a look at the other profiles, click here.
BOSTON – In the summer of 2007, Amir Johnson had two NBA seasons under his belt but very little to show for it.
He joined the Pistons as a second-round draft choice straight out of high school in 2005, and got a Harvard-like basketball education as he learned from a trio of All-Stars (Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess) as well as veterans such as Elden Campbell.
Waiting for his chance to play behind them taught Johnson a valuable lesson in patience, as well as finding ways to impact games besides the obvious metrics of scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
Johnson quickly figured out he could make a nice living in the NBA doing the dirty work, the intangibles that don’t get much attention but are absolutely critical to a team’s success.
It’s one of the many reasons the Celtics made acquiring the 11-year veteran a priority last summer. And when Kevin Durant spurned Boston to instead sign with Golden State, Johnson’s return to the Celtics became a given.
But the role he was called upon to play last season will be slightly different with the addition of Al Horford.
Instead of being counted on to be Boston’s primary rim-protector, Johnson will now get some much-needed help from Horford, who has been one of the better defensive big men in the NBA.
So what does it all mean to Johnson heading into this season?
Here’s a look at the ceiling as well as the floor for Johnson’s game, with training camp just a few weeks away.
The Ceiling for Johnson – All-NBA Defensive Team
He has established himself as a solid defender, but Johnson hasn’t really gotten much love when it comes to inclusion among the league’s top defensive players. That’s because he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers defensively. And for the most part he has played on good but not great teams, which to some degree has not put him in the best light in terms of having his defense highlighted.
But across the NBA landscape, people have known about Johnson -- and what he can do defensively -- for years.
That’s why when he first became a free agent in 2007 after those two non-descript seasons in Detroit, there were a number of teams aggressively pursuing him with contract offers . . . including perennial power San Antonio.
Johnson eventually re-signed with Detroit, where his defensive prowess began to shine more and more. His reputation solidified during six seasons in Toronto.
In his first season with Boston last year, Johnson was particularly impressive when it came to defending at the rim. According to NBA.com/stats, Johnson limited opponents to shooting 8.9 percent less from the field within six feet of the rim when he was defending them.
Because of his position on the floor, Johnson spends most of his time defending players looking to score from inside the 3-point line. When it came to defending 2-point shots, Johnson limited opponents to 45.8 percent shooting, which was 3.9 percent less than what they shot from the field overall.
And when you look at what he has done in man-to-man coverage, that too has been impressive. Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap has shot just 36.6 percent (15-for-41) shooting against Johnson. Even future Hall of Famers like Dirk Nowitzki have had their struggles against Johnson who, according to nbasavant.com, has limited Nowitzki to 35.5 percent on 11-for-31 shooting from the field.
Like most big men in the NBA, defending switches on pick-and-rolls is also paramount to being a good defender.
This, too, has been an area in which Johnson has excelled.
Washington’s John Wall is one of the fastest players in the league when he has the ball, a player who has consistently shown an ability to blow past defenders bigger than him.
But Johnson’s lateral quickness and defensive instincts have enabled him to more than hold his own when he has had to guard Wall, evident by limiting the Wizards star to just 8-for-26 shooting (30.7 percent) when he is the primary defender.
If Johnson can continue to defend at such a high level and Boston finds itself near the top of the East, Johnson’s play defensively will certainly be talked about as one of the reasons. And that may lead to him getting some serious consideration as an all-NBA defender.
The floor for Johnson – Rotation player
One of Johnson’s former teammates told me that one of his best qualities is that he can help you win games without a single play being called for him.
In building a title contender, having players with that particular quality becomes extremely valuable.
And when it comes to Johnson, there’s no mistaking that he has tremendous value to the Boston Celtics.
In addition to the 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds he provides per game, he also provides a voice of experience that the younger Celtics players have leaned on from time to time.
He’s a veteran who starts now, but Johnson remembers all too well how difficult it was early in his career to sit and watch, wondering when his opportunity to showcase his skills would come.
It required patience, something he has been preaching to his Celtics teammates practically from the time he arrived.
Players with those qualities do more to help a team than hurt them. So as the Celtics continue to stockpile talent, which may impact how much court time Johnson gets in the future, his contributions -- even in a more limited role -- still have tremendous value. That’s why regardless of who the Celtics add to the mix, Johnson will have a place in the team’s regular rotation as a starter or key reserve off the bench.