How a fit James Johnson is destroying opponents on the baseline


Written by Jaelin Wilson (@brothajay) on 15 March 2017   

Fighting to used to come easy to James Johnson, now basketball is. Since coming to the Miami this past Summer, Johnson has dropped 40 pounds (and counting); he credits Miami’s training staff and culture for the weight whittling.

Johnson noted that he feels as if his game as been further unlocked due to his new body. And he wouldn’t be wrong. His shooting numbers are up across the board, from last year, in Toronto. But there are a few areas that are particularly indicative of his newfound physique.

To put Johnson’s weight loss into context: The heaviest bowling ball you can find at your local bowling alley is 16 pounds. We’ve all picked those up and put them right back down. Johnson lost 2.5 of those 16-pound bowling balls. It’s safe to say he’s been liberated.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Johnson is more dunk-happy this season. He registered 18 dunks in 2015-16; this season, he’s up to 23 (and counting), according to basketball-reference.com. Last season, Johnson never registered more than 2 dunks per month after December, only totaling 9 from January 2016 to the end of the NBA’s regular season, in May. This season, Johnson threw down 9 in January, alone(!). A lot of that could be due to Johnson’s increased role and Miami’s efficient, collegial offense. But the numbers speak for themselves. Johnson is ballin’.

It’s a wonder what losing 40 pounds can do for your explosiveness — which is the perfect word to describe Johnson.

One of the ways Johnson’s restored explosiveness has helped his game is, it has made him a more viable isolation player; he can blow by guys now. Johnson, still limber from his fighting years, has a knack for getting to the rim, absorbing contact and still managing to get his shot off. Perhaps his most impressive displays of this are his baseline drives. Particularly in isolation, coming from the left side of the court.

Driving baseline is unique. Usually, there’s no screens, no dribble handoffs, no — anything. It’s just player versus player. An arena where speed and slippery body positioning are kings. Think of a defensive end in the NFL. To get to the quarterback, they must fire out of their stance like rockets, avoid a blocker by making themselves as slippery as possible, and all while maintaining their speed. (Speed and limber strength — sound like anyone?)

In a 2009 article with the Las Vegas Sun, Johnson said this regarding how fighting (his first love) is different than basketball: "Fighting, you're one-on-one," Johnson said. "It's you against him. You don't have to worry about backside help or helping another guy who gets beat. It's just you against the other dude.”

No wonder he’s so successful attacking the baseline in isolation, where it’s often mano a mano.

In isolation situations: Driving baseline from the left side of the court, Johnson is averaging 1.5 points per possession. And minimum 10 such possession, Johnson ranks second out 53 qualifying players in points per possession, per Synergy Sports — above Stephen Curry (No. 3 of 53), LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and more.

Johnson gets to the free-throw line a quarter of the time he isolates his man and drives left baseline (25-percent), according to Synergy Sports. Which makes sense when you consider that he’s moving 8-percent faster on offense (and traveling 42-percent farther per game!) than in 2015-16, per NBA.com/Stats. After he gets a step on his opponent, they’re often too out of position to stop him, so they foul.

(For context, normally, Johnson only gets to the free-throw line 11.3-percent of the time, per Synergy Sports, but he’s hyper-efficient when driving left baseline.)

Johnson has displayed sweeping improvements this year, shooting and passing the ball; he’s ranked No. 1 in hoopsstats.com’s most improved rankings for power-forwards. But it’s interesting that he still excels in an area where an individual's skill set can trump all.

With his new body, it makes you wonder what Johnson could do in an MMA fight, now — forget about attacking a basket.

From a 2009 Sports Illustrated piece by Luke Winn on James Johnson: "I'm not done fighting" he says, throwing a few air jabs while exhaling sharply for effect. "I think about fighting all the time."


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