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An in-depth look at James Johnson, the new kickass Grizzly

James Johnson's been great since the Grizzlies signed him two weeks ago. We take a deeper look at the forward and what he's done for Memphis.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Johnson

#3 / Forward / Memphis Grizzlies



Feb 20, 1987


When you look at James Johnson, he literally looks like grit-and-grind. From the neck tattoos to the bulk, he's an intimidating presence right away. Things don't change when you learn more about who he is, because he's actually competed in kickboxing and MMA events. The rest of his family has a pretty tall-standing pedigree in martial arts, so they can all kick your ass too.

Predictably, everything starts with athleticism when you talk about Johnson. He's strong as a bull (and he was one briefly in Chicago, who drafted him 16th overall in 2009), runs the floor hard and has serious hops. At 6'9" and 245 lbs with a 7'1" wingspan, he makes for a seriously well-built wing. You'll see his athleticism feed into just about everything he does, whether contesting shots, making plays on the glass or finishing at the rim. He also (maybe) has a three-point shot, which would automatically make him a great add for the Grizzlies. The athleticism alone gives Johnson the skills to be a pretty useful two-way forward, and he's got the frame to play the 3 or a small-ball 4 (he's even played center in the past).

FG 3PT FT Rebounds Misc
G M M A Pct M A Pct M A Pct Off Def Tot Ast TO Stl Blk PF PPG
2013 - James Johnson 6 23.0 3.2 5.5 57.6 1.2 2.7 43.8 1.3 1.5 88.9 1.7 2.8 4.5 2.2 0.8 1.3 1.0 2.2 8.8


So far, Johnson hasn't been particularly great on defense. Per Synergy, opponents are shooting 50% from the field against him (albeit in a very small sample size, since Johnson hasn't been around too long yet). Granted, the Grizzlies have matched him up with some pretty dangerous scorers. Johnson's seen a lot of James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, and those two alone make up 26 of the 55 possessions Synergy has tracked Johnson defending.

The idea is, though, that Johnson is a tough-as-nails defender armed with some dangerous athletic gifts. The main thing one notices about him on defense is that he contests shots really well. He's blocked a handful of shots both inside and outside of the paint already, and with his long arms and leaping ability, it's not surprising that he bothers shooters so well. Those arms also come in handy when Johnson wants to make plays in the passing lanes or tries to poke balls loose. For his career, he's averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes. There aren't a lot of guys that can offer you both of those in such volume (guys like Josh Smith and Nicolas Batum come to mind), and they generally tend to be pretty valuable players since they can start so many transition opportunities.

Where one hopes Johnson can contribute most for the Grizzlies is guarding bigger and stronger wings. Mike Conley and Tony Allen are great defenders, but they can't always contain the bigger wings in the NBA. Tayshaun Prince has long arms and understands how to cut players off really well, but he's way past his physical peak and hurts the team on offense.

To date, Johnson hasn't stopped a player in the post yet on 10 possessions (allowed 6-for-6 shooting with four fouls). Now, the players he's taken on are Melo, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Harden. In theory, he has the tools to be a good post defender. He's scrappy, and his strength and shot-contesting ability would seem to make him a difficult matchup for most players (a label the players he's been matched up with so far don't qualify for). Generally, he'll contest shots well enough.

Instead, the most worrying aspect of Johnson is his lateral quickness. Against quicker players, he'll often lag a step behind and allow his check to blow by him on the perimeter, which usually forces him to foul. Even in the post, players were able to face him up and get to the rim. It's certainly not due to a lack of effort from Johnson – he'll grab and do everything he can to stay on his man, which is what leads to his propensity for fouling when beaten – but he's just a bit too bulky to stick on some of the more nimble perimeter players out there. That's what Tony Allen and Mike Conley are for, though.


We know all about James Johnson's ability to get to the rim and throw it down by now. He's tough enough to take the contact and he can really get up for the finish. Attacking the rim is actually Johnson's main method of scoring, and he's yet another dangerous backdoor cutter for the Grizzlies to add to their roster. Now, unlike Tony Allen who is pretty much restricted to cutting without the ball, Johnson's a bit more polished and can score in a few other ways.

Johnson's handle on the ball is limited when pressured, but he has no problem taking a dribble or two to power his way through to the rim. He'll spot up and drive off the catch, which is one of the best ways for him to get a step ahead of his man. Like we've seen in the tomahawk dunk clip, Johnson's got a pretty sweet crossover he'll go to from time to time. From there, Johnson can finish extremely well, whether on a dunk or a layup.

On the fast break, Johnson has the perfect skill-set to thrive. He runs hard and fills the lane well, making him a perfect complement for guys like Tony Allen who can create steals but sometimes struggles to finish. The identity of the Grizzlies might be unsure at times and we don't know whether to call them a running team that creates a lot of steals or a slow-it-down team that likes to grind it out in the post (even though we're last in the NBA in pace), but whenever the Grizz have a transition opportunity, Johnson's a very good transition finisher. If you're tired of watching Tayshaun Prince run straight down the middle and then somehow brick a layup, Johnson does the opposite of that.


It's probably not too surprising that Johnson is a good rebounder. Consider his athleticism and his size, and you've got somebody who can grab you plenty of rebounds out of the wing spot. Johnson hauls in 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career, including 1.8 on the offensive end (which could safely be considered elite offensive rebounding out of a perimeter position). For a team like the Grizzlies that prides itself on being a physical team in the paint and on the glass, Johnson makes a scary rebounding team even scarier.

Crashing the offensive glass can also make up a lot of Johnson's offense. He's Tony Allen-esque (or very good) in his ability to come down with a rebound on that end, but unlike Tony Allen, Johnson can go back up and finish pretty well through contact. The extra six inches he has over Allen probably comes in handy here, and we've already seen Johnson fly in for putback dunks (or layups, which are less exciting but still a thing) here and there.

My personal belief is that the Grizzlies are too slow a team to send a perimeter player crashing the offensive glass every possession and risk being beat in transition, but having the option of sending Johnson in there is great for a Grizzlies team that sometimes relies on an advantage in offensive rebounding to win.

Three-Point Shooting

This one's really interesting. Historically, James Johnson's been an awful three-point shooter. For his career, he shoots 28.8% from three. In the past, he's never really been eager to shoot the three. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies desperately need consistent three-point shooting out of their perimeter players as they're last in the league in three-pointers made and attempted. Their lack of shooters, as you probably know by now, gives opponents the ability to crash into the paint on big men.

With that need for perimeter guys who can space the floor, I was initially a doubter on the Johnson signing. Now though, he's come out to be a pretty good shooter (for now). In six games, he's shooting 7-for-16 on threes (43.8%, 1.8 makes per 36 minutes). That's not nearly enough to now whether he's a legit shooter long-term, and for whatever little it's worth, some of his misses have been really ugly bricks. In the D-League this season, he shot just 28.9% (13-for-45, a respectable sample size).

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For the most part, Johnson is getting open looks. Part of this is surely defenses being willing to help off of him, since he's never been a threat from downtown before. Johnson spends a lot of time as a spot-up option on the floor, and confidence hasn't been an issue in him taking threes as he's taken the same amount of threes as shots in the paint this season (with only one midrange jumper, which we'll say is unequivocally a good thing). Undoubtedly, defenses will adjust if he keeps it up. Maybe it's a bit optimistic, but one hopes Johnson can at least hover around league average going forward. If he can, he becomes an instant improvement over Tayshaun Prince in the starting lineup. Playing a non-shooter like Tony Allen is much easier to do when he's surrounded by two respectable shooters on the perimeter, instead of doubling the problem by putting Prince alongside him.


If he can't shoot after all, Johnson will still hurt the team trying to run their offense. The problem of defenders crashing in on big men will remain if guys aren't inclined to stay on Johnson on the perimeter. For all of the things he does well, it won't be worth much if he's in the way of what the Grizzlies want to do on offense. Fortunately, that hasn't be the case so far.

Beyond shooting, turnovers and fouls are what people have tended to worry about most with Johnson. Neither have been problems yet and his turnovers are extraordinarily low so far, but they were problems in the D-League and they've been problems throughout the early stages of his career. As a very hands-on defender with a comparative lack of lateral quickness on the perimeter and one who will jump on pump fakes to contest shots, it's not surprising to see Johnson fouling regularly. On offense, he'll make ill-advised decisions sometimes like dribbling into help defenders or forcing a pass that just isn't there. He's a very aggressive players on both ends, and it does lead to mental mistakes.

So, what he can do for the Grizzlies?

Who knows if James Johnson will actually end up starting or not? It feels like everyone's tired of Tayshaun Prince at this point, and for good reason. Regardless of whether he can shoot or not, Johnson can do more things than Prince on both ends. He'll get fast breaks started and he'll finish them well. FedExForum is going to love the energy he brings. If he can shoot the three consistently, he becomes the bulky 3-and-D guy the Grizzlies have desperately needed this season.

For now, it looks like Johnson's going to see a lot of minutes as a role player off of the bench. It's working so far, and we almost all love him. Time will dictate whether the shooting is consistent, which could go a long way in determining the long-term role Johnson has with the Grizzlies. Reports have indicated the Griz are still seeking "wing athleticism", showing they're not sold on Johnson quite yet. If he keeps producing like this though, that might not be the case for long.

I'm not done fighting. I think about fighting all the time. -James Johnson

Also, calling him Johnson over and over again has become pretty boring. He seems like somebody that deserves a more intimidating moniker. Basketball-Reference lists his nickname as "Bloodsport", which I've never heard before but it's totally badass. From what I've heard, he picked up "Jimmy Johns" during his time with the Bulls at Blog a Bull (credit maybe due to Kevin Ferrigan?). Do you guys prefer Bloodsport, Jimmy Johns, or something else? We need something, y'all.