The advanced-stat all-star
Amir Johnson is a superstar by some measures, even if he's never heard of them
Amir Johnson does a funny thing when you tell him his true value on a basketball court.
The Toronto Raptors forward, long the darling of the NBA's statheads, seems like a modest guy. The night before he gave an interview in Toronto this month, he had appeared as a guest judge on Canada's version of "Top Chef." He might have been fine talking about food instead of basketball; in fact, when a visiting radio host took Johnson aside earlier in the day, the host seemed to care little about the team's first playoff appearance since 2008. Instead, for an on-air bit, he cajoled Johnson into singing the Backstreet Boys instead of his teammates' praises.
But now the topic at hand is this: Johnson is worth a ton to the Raptors, who tied their first-round playoff series with the Nets at two games apiece Sunday night in Brooklyn. At just 26 years old, he's never made an All-Star team -- hasn't even come close. Not once in his nine seasons has he averaged more than 11 points or 7.5 rebounds per game. Sometimes, he doesn't even start. Yet there is a large sect of league followers that consider Johnson among the most valuable, efficient and irreplaceable players in the NBA.
When he is told this, Johnson pulls a hand toward his face and cups it with his palm. He shields himself from view for an instant, turning his head down, away from a reporter, and to the floor. But there is a smile there, too.
Johnson is the last of a discontinued model. In 2005, during the final draft before the NBA put its new age limit in place, the Detroit Pistons selected the last prep star ever to be called to the pros. From Westchester High School in Los Angeles, Johnson moved to the Motor City, an 18-year-old joining a team with some of the most revered big men in the league.
With Detroit, Johnson never broke 16 minutes per game for a season. But under a quintet of old dogs -- Dale Davis, Antonio McDyess, Kelvin Cato and the Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed -- he learned NBA basketball.
Early on, Johnson caught the eye of Pistons assistant Michael Curry, who began to see that Johnson's stats didn't seem to appropriately measure his worth to the team. When Curry became head coach in 2008, he gave Johnson his first starts in the NBA.
"A lot of people questioned why I would be playing him when I had some veteran guys," Curry says. "But Amir could get four, six points and six rebounds, but that didn't even begin to show you how much impact he had actually had on the game."
By the time he was traded to Toronto in 2009, Johnson was an insider's commodity. He had bounced around the D-League and scored just 3.5 points per game in his most recent NBA season, though Johnson's stock was rising as an undervalued asset among those who looked beyond the box score.
Johnson's traditional stats are forgettable -- he averaged 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this regular season and is averaging 10.5 and 5.8 against the Nets -- and often he'll uncork what seems to be a stinker.
But Johnson has become indispensable to the Raptors. His most glowing statistical review comes through a measure called real plus-minus, a figure that gauges the impact a player has on his team's offense and defense when he's on the floor, accounting for the play of his teammates and the quality of his opponent. Among players that average at least 25 minutes per game, Johnson places ninth in the NBA in real plus-minus. Seven of the eight players ahead of him have been All-Stars.
Dig deeper and you'll find Johnson is among the league's very best at defending opponents at the rim, according to NBA.com, even though his block numbers (1.1 per game this season) do not reflect it.
"It's a fearless thing," says Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "He goes vertical at the basket. He's not embarrassed to get dunked on at the rim."
He's also among the league's best at grabbing contested rebounds, according to NBA.com, which defines this as the snatching of any board with a defender nearby.
"I take it personally," Johnson says. "If I don't get [a rebound], the other guy's not getting it."
On offense, Johnson must find his own way to score. Casey almost never calls a play for him; appropriately, his usage rate, the percentage of his team's possessions a player uses while on the court, is about the same as that of Nate Wolters.
When Johnson does shoot, he does it well. He still hit half his field goals in Games 1 and 3, but in Toronto's two playoff wins over Brooklyn, Johnson has connected on 71 percent of his shots. For the postseason, Johnson is again among the league's elite in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, stats that account for the value of 3-pointers and free throws.
The Raptors are a forward-thinking team, having devoted many man hours and financial resources to the pursuit of advanced statistical analysis. Most days, an email is filed to Casey and his assistants from the team's statisticians, cobbling together data the coaches will use to formulate their game plan. Yet that is often the end of the line on analytics communication.
Johnson hears none of it. He is contrary to players like Shane Battier, who famously receives daily, hyper-specific intel points by which he tailors his play. Instead, Johnson is a natural, his game organically translating well to the metrics many league observers covet most.
"All my stuff is freelance," he says. "Whatever I do on the court is pretty much to help the team. The coach doesn't tell me to do this or that. I'm just playing."
Indeed, if Johnson ever hears of his advanced statistical prowess, it is most often not in a pregame report but through a 140-character message. "I don't really know the stats, except when somebody tweets me," he says. "I don't really keep up with it or try to."
And this is just how Casey wants it. The coach feels unloading a sophisticated spreadsheet before tipoff would be counterproductive.
"We wouldn't go to Amir and go, 'Well [this opponent] is 1.4 PPP [points per possession] from that position, even in the scouting report," Casey says. "We may put it on the board, but we don't hit on anything too specific because it can be an overload."
Johnson is grinning. And why not? The Raptors might be the NBA's surprise this season, not that others, like Phoenix or Portland, haven't exceeded expectations. But some say with a straight face that Toronto has become a team that could reach the conference finals. This might be hyperbole, paying little attention to the idea that many of the Raptors' wins have come against the dreck of the East, though it is no less confounding to many that had forecast another rebuilding season in Canada.
During the playoffs -- Toronto's first visit to the postseason since Chris Bosh still paid a provincial income tax -- Johnson has continued to excel via the things unquantifiable by traditional measures. Late in Game 4, with the Raptors up four, Paul Pierce drove left around Patrick Patterson and toward the hoop. Johnson left Kevin Garnett on the block, planted in the lane and allowed himself to be bowled over. After the charge, Brooklyn never again threatened for the night.
"For me, the playoffs is all about defense," he says. "Guys can score the ball, but it's what you do on that defensive end that matters."
If his ankle stays intact, Johnson should shine by the most simple metric there is. He will help the Raptors score more points and he will help the Raptors give up fewer. Spreadsheets around the world will swell, and Johnson won't hear a word about it.
Let him know on Twitter.