On July 3, Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical reported that the Brooklyn Nets agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract with restricted free agent Tyler Johnson. One thought immediately began reverberating throughout the league:
At that point, Johnson, who spent four years at Fresno State, completed a one-year stint with the NBA Development League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce, then joined the Miami Heat, was very much an unknown commodity. He’d occasionally provided glimpses of his lofty potential with tomahawk dunks and high-flying blocks, but his name didn’t resonate outside South Florida.
So when he did land that monster deal from Brooklyn, Heat president Pat Riley was expected to pass on matching it.
Johnson participated in only 68 games through his first two seasons in Miami, partially due to different injuries (usually involving his left shoulder). In that span, the undersized shooting guard averaged 7.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 45.9 percent shooting from the field. His play certainly didn’t warrant a long-term commitment like the one offered by the Nets.
And yet, three days later, just as Johnson was about to switch teams, Wojnarowski announced Miami had made its decision: The unknown commodity was going to his continue his career with the Heat, but as a much wealthier man.
Two weeks later, Riley told the media it was actually team owner Micky Arison who ultimately decided the Heat would match Brooklyn’s huge offer sheet. Via Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel: “[Arison] said, ‘You’re not poaching any of my guys’. And [he] made the decision. He loves Tyler. He’s a young piece and a part of our future.”
Thus far, Johnson has rewarded Miami for its faith.
Johnson’s first year operating with a new contract has been quietly explosive.
Among players with at least 20 appearances off the bench, he’s eighth in scoring at 13.9 points per contest while chipping in with an additional 4.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals. Most impressively, he’s turning the ball over just once nightly. (His 3.19 assist-to-turnover ratio is seventh overall for guys averaging over 20 minutes.
Since 1980-81, only 10 other seasons have featured a player averaging at least 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists with fewer than 1.5 turnovers per game: Dan Majerle (twice), Al Horford (twice), Tayshaun Prince (three times), Robert Reid, Brad Miller and Jimmy Butler. Not a bad list to be on.
Along with the young combo guard’s ability to acutely take care of the basketball while still distributing, he’s also particularly adept at completing plays around the basket. Playing with Goran Dragic, one of the best lefty finishers in the NBA, may have something to do with that. Johnson shoots 56.4 percent within five feet of the rim, which is just behind two of the league’s most explosive point guards—Russell Westbrook (56.7) and John Wall (56.8)—and 28th among guards overall.
Furthermore, Johnson defends the ball almost as well as he takes care of it. Via NBA Math, he has saved 28.66 points defensively while ranking 39th in defensive win shares (2.2). Additionally, the Fresno State grad holds opposing players to a meager 0.8 points per possession (PPP) on isolation plays.
His combination of elite athleticism and nonstop effort makes him one of the league’s better perimeter defenders.
Unsurprisingly, all of his strengths make him an advanced stat darling. Johnson’s 4.9 win shares are 50th in the NBA, his 1.8 VORP is 43rd and his 2.3 box plus/minus is 51st. Moreover, his 64.13 total points added, per NBA Math, ranks 53rd.
And he’s done all that while starting zero games.
Above all else, Johnson is at his best when functioning as a spot-up shooter or scoring off screens.
According to NBA.com’s database, Miami’s sixth man scores 1.08 PPP on spot ups and 1.05 PPP off screens. Respectively, those clips put him in the 73.8 and 72.9 percentile—not quite in the elite range, but still healthy rates.
Johnson’s spot-up ability first made him stand out during his one year with Sioux Falls, as he shot 42.6 percent from deep in the D-League. Now, the stroke has translated nicely to the NBA level. Johnson has near-perfect form when spotting up, keeping his body square to the basket and following through with a consistent motion:
When trying to create his own shot, he can run into some trouble. Johnson’s 0.66 PPP on isolation plays puts him in the 21.4 percentile, and the next step in his development will involve quickening his release to help him get shots off over defenders playing him tightly.
However, head coach Erik Spoelstra has designed a current workaround by diagramming plays that free Johnson through off-ball screens, thus giving him the space and requisite time to receive good looks. With his teammates’ picks, Johnson is able to either spot up from a comfortable area, get downhill and use his athleticism or pull up with a floater to score over opposing big men:
The left-handed combo guard is energetic, has bounce, works with a tight jumper and is a feisty defender. He likely won’t receive many Sixth Man of the Year votes this year (though he probably should), but he almost certainly will in the future.
But is Johnson just a perennial borderline Sixth Man of the Year candidate? Or, with more experience, can he become something more?
Taking the Next Step
These questions are paramount because though Johnson’s contract averages out to $12.5 million per year (more than reasonable in today’s market), his deal is of the “poison pill” variety. In an attempt to ward off the Heat from matching their offer, the Nets made the first two seasons of Johnson’s contract worth $5.63 million and $5.88 million while backloading the subsequent seasons. Starting in 2018-19, Miami owes Johnson $18.56 million, followed by $19.63 million in 2019-20.
With the looming rise in his pay, Heat management hope his output can also elevate. After all, $38.19 million over two years for a bench player is an absurd amount of money.
To justify the salary, Johnson needs to improve in multiple areas. Along with his aforementioned problems in isolation, the young guard is in the 40.8 percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (0.77 PPP). Despite his insane athleticism, he’s scoring 1.18 PPP in transition, putting him in 65.0 percentile. Just for comparison’s sake, Raymond Felton is good for 0.91 PPP running the PnR and 1.33 in transition.
Guys who can do things like this…
…shouldn’t be getting outscored by Felton on the break.
Likewise, he has to do a better job drawing fouls (his 0.315 free-throw rate is lower than Jeff Green’s), converting contested three-point looks (41.2 percent with six-plus feet of space, but just 36.1 percent overall) and working as a playmaker.
Regardless, even with his flaws, Johnson’s first year as a vital piece of Miami’s core has been a success. And if he sees even a modicum of improvement between now and 2018 (which appears likely, considering how quickly he’s refined his game already), his contract won’t seem burdensome.
Rather, it’ll feel like a heist.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.