USA Today Sports
Amir Johnson‘s career has always existed in magnetic tension between polar opposites.
As a high school senior, the world at (or, more accurately, below) his feet, Amir turned in a dunk contest performance so thoroughly nasty that it’s not at all hyperbolic to compare it to the Vince Carter dunk contest; then he was picked 56th overall in the 2005 draft, the domain of hustlers, pick-setters, suit-wearers, and never-to-cross-the-Atlantic Europeans. He’s been around long enough that he played for an NBDL team called the Fayetteville Patriots, where he was teammates with Mateen Cleaves; but he’s younger than Roy Hibbert, Mario Chalmers, Nick Young, Corey Brewer–still just 26 after almost a decade in the league. His skill-set has always been swooping and arial enough for the obsessives to fawn over; yet fundamentally sound enough to merit a highlight reel consisting of nothing but picks. Having started 29 career games, Johnson was signed to a 5-year, $30-million contract by the much-maligned Bryan Colangelo, the same man responsible for making sure that the grandchildren of players like Landry Fields, Linas Kleiza, and Andrea Bargnani will be financially secure. But now, even in these backloaded years, the contract seems nothing but reasonable: $6.5 million for a 30 MPG starter who contributes at both ends is something of a bargain.
Much as we drool about the flabbergasting youth/athleticism/bodily dimensions combo of Giannis Antetokounmpo in this era, highlights from early in Amir Johnson’s career feel as rare, grainy, and implausible as Bigfoot caught on tape. The other dramatis personae we know–the dying remnants of the Bad Boys II Pistons crew, even cameo appearances by Allen Iverson and Darko Milicic. (That’s how long Amir’s been around: he was teammates when Darko when it was still timely to clamor for Darko to be freed.) Even in his fifth season in Toronto we hardly know Amir–each of those Raptors teams has missed the playoffs, until like this week Toronto has only been a last-ditch resort on your League Pass machine–and seeing him cornrowed and in Pistons blue-and-red seems like some sort of advanced Photoshop joke.
Tremble at this.
An unholy terror, it seemed, was only waiting to acquire the necessary seasonings before he unleashed peak Amar’e upon all of us.
The (second) Rudy Gay trade just happened and, examine it as we tried from every conceivable angle, trying to conjure the formulas of Masai Ujiri‘s voodoo, nobody was anticipating the liberating effects it would have on Amir. Johnson just turned in a month where he averaged 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, well above his November, Gay-burdened averages of 9.0/6.4. Amir’s started 27 of the Raptors’ 30 games and he’s posted career highs in minutes played and shots per game thus far. It’s official: he’s free.
Freed Amir looks and acts really different than we imagined In-Captivity Amir would act when a coach finally up and unchained him. There are lots of solid picks, effective defense, and all his points come from Joel Anthony-esque happenstance cleanups instead of Al Jefferson-ian clear-outs. Amir posted his career high on the very day that both Gay got traded and Kobe Bryant made The Return: Amir’s 32 points didn’t steal the show because they were mostly opportunistic slashes instead of rhythm-defining ground-to-air maneuvers. Offense isn’t even the end of the floor where Amir earns his playing time. Amir’s eyes got big at the Lakers’ lack of interior presence–meantime Johnson only attempted five shots during Toronto’s vogue-creating win over the Pacers on New Year’s. Hold David West to 9 points on 3-of-9, though, and you’ll see all sorts of crunch-time.
If you knew a kid in high school who walked around barefoot and pledged to walk all the way up the Pacific Coast–some sort of dude who really sucked the marrow out of life–it would be jolting to learn that he’d donned loafers and become an accountant. Amir Johnson is a real adult now and, wild as his basketball childhood was, he is now that accountant. It’s not a bad thing. (If we weren’t so blinded by dunks, we may have even seen that the evidence was there all along.) It’s not a bad thing at all. Because after this contract ends for Amir, another one will come his way. You get paid when you work for the firm.