On paper, the 6-foot-10 rookie should have been able to help add depth to the Celtics' thin front line. Whenever Kevin Garnett left the floor, the Celtics' interior defensive became like a sieve, and nobody who manned the middle could go more than a few minutes without getting into foul trouble. Johnson had the height and the reach to supply a few minutes of relief, but he also had a suit jacket covering his hunched shoulders.
From the very beginning of the season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers downplayed Johnson's role in the post. "I'm not even sure he's a big," Rivers remarked at one point, raising a few eyebrows. Since when is a 6-foot-10 guy not a big? And if he is not a big, why spend a first-round draft pick on a player who is big for no reason?
In limited action last season and throughout the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues so far, though, Johnson has shown exactly why Rivers was right — and why he was wrong.
Johnson has flashed the athleticism and instincts necessary to block shots and track down rebounds, but he does not appear to have gained much weight. That suggests he does not plan to do much banging on the block this season, so for his sake let us hope the Celtics don't, either. The Celtics might be better off using Johnson as a hyper-athletic version of a "stretch four," which was more or less the way he played — when he played at all — as a rookie. He floated around about 18 feet from the basket and showed off an above-average shooting touch, but looked lost with his back to the basket or as the screener in a pick-and-roll.
The "stretch four" is a position that has grown in popularity over the last few years. Once personified by Robert Horry, the stretch four is an evolution of the traditional power forward, who toils with one foot in the paint at all times. Players like Ryan Anderson, Al Harrington and even Garnett, to a degree, now eschew the post for long jump shots or 3-pointers, clearing the lane for dribble penetration for their teammates in the backcourt or on the wing.
One underappreciated aspect of Garnett's shift to center last season was the way in which it opened up the floor offensively. Jermaine O'Neal only clogged the lane, whereas Garnett and Brandon Bass, who effectively replaced O'Neal in the starting lineup, drew their defenders outside of the post. Not surprisingly, Rajon Rondo was able to get to the hoop much more often and Avery Bradley's off-ball cuts became much more effective.
Johnson comes more from this mold, which is why he told reporters Wednesday that he could see himself sharing playing time with recent draft pick Jared Sullinger, rather than competing with the former Buckeye for minutes. Sullinger also has a reliable midrange jump shot, so he and Johnson could team in a four-five combo that would still spread the floor when Garnett and Bass need a breather.
Johnson's basketball IQ has drawn raves this summer, so in time he might develop the traditional post game as well. In the meantime, he can still help the Celtics in a big way, even if he is not a "big man."
Photo via Facebook/JaJuan Johnson
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