Amir Johnson began the year for the Raptors with a new contract and a spot on the team’s second unit.
Injuries have moved him into the starting unit. All kinds of factors will play into whether he’s there to stay.
What happens when Reggie Evans comes back? How will next season’s new faces affect the rotation?
But Johnson has certainly given the Raptors pause for thought.
Always an active rebounder and willing, if not polished, defender, Johnson’s game has taken huge strides this year.
It began with a willingness to stretch defences at the offensive end with a mid-range jumper he spent plenty of time working on with assistant Alex English over the summer.
Defences could no longer ignore the fact that the jumper was in his arsenal and had to account for him away from the basket as well as underneath it.
But Johnson’s real progress has unfolded as Raptors began to visit the injured list in bunches.
The first step was finding a way to stay on the court.
Johnson was collecting early fouls at an alarming rate and forcing Triano to take him out of the game early in order to still have him around later.
Johnson has made huge progress in this department. He has by no means licked the problem — two early ones Friday against Minnesota earned him an early seat but the second foul had Johnson, his teammates and his coach all shaking their heads in disbelief — but it is no longer the nightly concern that it was in December when Johnson first joined the starting five.
Johnson has found a way to remain as active as ever and avoid those early fouls that were not only costing him playing time but playing havoc with Triano’s limited options.
Johnson hasn’t fouled out of a game since Dec. 17, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his fouling problems are over. A better indicator that he’s got a handle on things is the fact that his playing time has been up, suggesting Triano hasn’t had to protect him as much as he had in the past.
Jose Calderon has also played a huge role in bringing Johnson’s talents to the forefront.
A year ago it was Calderon and Chris Bosh operating in the high pick and roll or screen and roll accounting for a large percentage of the Raptors’ scoring.
Johnson isn’t Bosh, but he and Calderon have developed a similar chemistry to the point where Johnson is probably the Raptors’ best option in the screen and roll.
For the season, Johnson is averaging a modest 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
The big strides have come in the past dozen or so games where the former Detroit Piston is averaging 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a night.
Off the court, Johnson is having an increased impact as well.
Throughout the 13-game losing skid, Johnson took to his twitter account to keep himself, his teammates and even the fans upbeat.
Prior to each game Johnson would tweet something encouraging. Whether it was “2night IS the NIGHT” which came right before the Minny win or “Practice makes perfect ... let’s sweat it out” which followed the Atlanta loss, Johnson seemed to be doing whatever he could to keep help the faith.
Johnson said it is just this season that he has been asking more of himself from a leadership role both on the court and off it. He pointedly adds the contract — a five-year deal worth $32 million US that has drawn some criticism — isn’t the reason.
“I knew I kind of had it in me,” he said. “Once you get more comfortable and you know you are going to be on the team for a while I guess you just give it your all. But I do that regardless of the contract.”
Even in team huddles during the game, Johnson now adds his own input, something he never did in previous years.
“I’m not used to that but I am more vocal in the locker room and at practice,” he said. “Playing through all these injuries has made me a lot more vocal I guess.”
It’s also allowed him to make himself that much more valuable to a team that is looking for pieces to build around for the future.