About three weeks ago I ran into JaJuan Johnson at Moe’s. We met eyes and said, “What’s up?” He walked over and gave me a fist pound. We shared a little small talk, I told him it was nice to see him, he said likewise, and he walked away to sit down at his seat across the restaurant. My buddy immediately interjected, “I know Moe’s food is crack, but I can’t believe professional athletes eat there. He should hire a personal chef and a weight trainer.” I added, “Maybe he just needs to double or triple his order.”
Yes, I shared that story mostly because AN NBA PLAYER RECOGNIZED ME AND APPROACHED ME JUST TO ACKNOWLEDGE MY EXISTENCE, PEOPLE!!!! He’s little more than a 13th man, yes, but for a 24-year old with no full-time job experience or real accomplishments to speak of, Johnson recognizing me at Moe’s might be my finest moment.
Okay, moving on before I start to become emotional.
Johnson’s rookie season was mostly a wasted year, and not entirely of his doing. The lockout kept him from participating in summer league and/or a full training camp. Boston’s veteran-laden team kept him from practicing during the regular season, which kept him from strengthening his weaknesses, which kept him off the court for most of the season. He couldn’t play with the Maine Red Claws at all because the Celtics needed bodies. He couldn’t play with the Celtics, on most nights, because the Celtics didn’t need bodies that badly.
And so Johnson arrived at summer league this season essentially as a rookie, with only 300 NBA minutes under his belt and just three practices after the All-Star break last season. Whatever improvements he made last year were almost solely the result of his own individual work. The lockout was to rookies what an in-room keg would be to a college freshman. It just wasn’t conducive to getting shit done.
Johnson still needs work, and a lot of it. Like Avery Bradley, he enters his sophomore season with plenty of athleticism and one evident NBA skill. Bradley’s one skill, though (defense, duh), happened to be the key to Doc Rivers’ heart. His one skill earned him time, and his time on the court eventually allowed himself to prove capable of making other contributions. Johnson’s skill isn’t quite as endearing to Rivers. Yes, the Celtics need offensive firepower. But not if it comes from a power forward who struggles to hold his own inside, has no low-post game to speak of and occasionally plays like someone blindfolded and trapped in a maze.
Johnson has talent. That’s easy to see when he catches the ball in the mid-post, inside pivots to face up his defender, then lofts a feathery jump shot that he releases from well above his head and is almost impossible to block. Over the five games at the Orlando Pro Summer League last week, Johnson could gradually be seen figuring out how to play offense at a professional level, at least against lesser competition. He began the week making things difficult for himself. He ended it with the apparent knowledge that he could simplify basketball, that he didn’t need to make any special moves to score. Against the majority of defenders, at least at the summer league level, all it takes for Johnson to find a decent look is to rise over his opponent and shoot. He has the makings of a pick-and-pop weapon, if only he could contribute in other ways to earn time on the court.
Shooting is all that comes easy for Johnson at the NBA level. As of July 16, 2012 (or today, for those of you who don’t have a calendar or cell phone handy), he has displayed little else that will make him successful in the Association. He’s an occasionally active rebounder and was named the Big 10′s Defensive Player of the Year in college, but he currently lacks the muscle to allow those strengths to translate to the NBA on a full-time basis. He hasn’t shown any real post moves since he moved to Boston and he rarely shows any ability to drive past his defender off the bounce. He can shoot and he can run and he can jump, but Johnson needs work. He spent four years in college, but Johnson is still more raw than the bleeding cheeseburger I ate last night.
And so we expect little from him in Year 2 of his NBA career. On a micro level, Johnson’s accurate jump shot from the power forward position is capable of helping an NBA team. But on a macro level, a jump-shooting big man is one of the last things the Celtics need. They start Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, remember. They need rebounding desperately. They need someone physical enough to defend on the low block, and their offense is better suited with a backup big man who can bang in the post. (Hello, Jared Sullinger.) It’s telling that the Celtics used both their first-round selections on big men this year even after drafting Johnson in the first round last year.
His role next season is unsure, but at least Johnson has good taste in restaurants. The queso dip at Moe’s is to die for.