Raptors' Johnson in tip-top shape

Raptors' Amir Johnson (middle) is fouled by Pistons' Vyacheslav Kravtsov as Pistons' Kyle Singler...

Raptors' Amir Johnson (middle) is fouled by Pistons' Vyacheslav Kravtsov as Pistons' Kyle Singler (left) looks on during pre-season action in Toronto on Friday night. (REUTERS)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:30 PM ET

TORONTO - Coming into the NBA as an 18-year-old, Amir Johnson had that much more to learn than most in his draft class.
And as the final NBA player to go directly from high school to the pros, he remained the young guy with the most to learn for a couple of years after his draft.
But now a grizzled (OK, maybe not quite grizzled) 25-year-old and into his eighth year in the league, no one on the Raptors has as many years in the league outside of Jose Calderon, who is also entering his eighth campaign or Jamaal Magloire, who has an even dozen.
So it’s somewhat surprising to hear Johnson talking about learning new things and changing up his off-season routine even at this advanced point in his career.
It’s not as if the rigours of old age have set in yet, but Johnson is continually fine-tuning his training program to ensure better times ahead and this past off-season was no different.
Coming off a bunch of nagging injuries that hampered him much of the year, Johnson still appeared in 64 of the 66 games the Raps played and started 43 of those. Only Ed Davis played in more games (he made all 66) and only DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon had more starts.
But Johnson is the kind of player who plays through the pain and the injuries. A personal favourite memory of Johnson is him coming off the court after a pre-game warmup and being asked by then head coach Jay Triano, who was already down three starters, if he thought he would be able to go that night.
“Little bit of pain coach. I’m going to put a little more tape on it.”
That in a nutshell is Johnson. But now he’s taking a few more  preventative measures to avoid some of that discomfort.
Throughout the early part of his career Johnson admits he didn’t feel the need to put in the kind of off-season work he does now which saw him this year back home in California hitting the weight room and taking full advantage of the use of the LA Clippers practice facility throughout the off-season.
“After the season, right away really, I was right in the weight room,” Johnson said. “You want to keep your body in shape. I mean I got to have that beach body, right?”
As a lifelong Californian that last part is almost a cliche and it’s said to elicit a laugh, but Johnson is extremely serious about his off-season workouts.
“You learn a lot in this league and one of those things is you have to keep your body healthy and in shape,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t doing that when I first came in the league. I knew nothing about the body. I would just come in and run the floor and play hard.
“Coming into the league at 18 I wasn’t doing that stuff. I would just come into camp just ready to work hard, but I didn’t have the physical strength to do anything ... Now I’m into the weight lifting all that muscle endurance stuff.”
Johnson says the added strength gives him more confidence.
“When you look good and feel good it’s a confidence builder,” he said.
So far through training camp and the early pre-season, head coach Dwane Casey has singled out three Raptors as guys who have come back after the off-season having clearly done what was asked of them. Davis heads the list. Johnson was the second guy Casey mentioned and more recently DeRozan has been singled out for his own makeover.
For Johnson and Davis the improvements in their respective games are perfectly timed as the options for Casey among his big men have expanded this year with the arrival of Jonas Valanciunas and the return to health of Andrea Bargnani.
“(Johnson and Davis) came in making a case for their minutes and as we’ve said, it’s difficult for five bigs to play so we’re looking for guys to emerge and those two have emerged above all right now because they are playing at a high level with confidence and a sense of purpose,” Casey said earlier this week.
Johnson said he’s not as concerned about minutes as he is helping the Raptors win and in that regard his off-season work included a lot of shooting, an area the Raptors were woefully deficient in a year ago.
Johnson has always been a more willing passer than shooter. In the past when he did shoot, he would invariably hesitate before taking the shot. He tried to speed his release up this off-season.
“I just have to go ahead and shoot it and not hesitate,” he said. “I have a good touch. Just have to get that quick release off.”
Another addition to his game has seen Johnson extend his range out to the three-point line. Right now it’s not option No. 1 but he’s far more comfortable with that distance now than he has been in the past.
“If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it and teams are going to be surprised when I knock that down,” he said. “I’ve already been practising my three-point celebration.”
Heading into his eighth NBA season, Johnson is still surprising a lot of us.
 


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