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Can Amir Johnson Be a Starter for Long-term Success of the Raptors?

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, raising the question as to whether Amir Johnson could be the starting power-forward for the Toronto Raptors would have been absolutely unfathomable. Amir has bounced in and out of the starting line-up all season replacing the likes of injured bigs ahead of him in the rotation like Andrea Bargnani or Jonas Valanciunas. Early in the season Amir was simply asked to step in and provide hustle and energy, and to simply keep the basketball live by never giving up on possessions. He did just that, and we love him all the more for it.

This season has been a coming out party of sorts for Amir. His 5 year 34 million dollar contract seems a like a bargain based on his production as of late. If someone is not satisfied from a number’s perspective, than from looking at Amir’s effort and persistence to improve should be worth the merit.

No psychic or sports analyst could have predicted Johnson’s path to the starting line-up this season. As stated, Amir was slated to be a rotational big man behind Valanciunas and Bargnani. He was not a focus in the Raptors schema. Heading into training camp Amir’s main competition for minutes was Ed Davis. They were both defensively focused forwards who had arguably similar skill sets while bringing their own individual dynamics into the line-up. However the one thing Amir had in his advantage was experience.

With experience comes understanding, and that is the essential element that Amir possesses which makes his addition to this young team all the more valuable. Sure Ed Davis was having a great season, and it would’ve been amazing to watch him develop with the rest of the core, however his future development was still a question mark. With his rookie contract still on the books, the Raptors would’ve had to extend Davis in a couple years meaning they’d probably have to unload Amir’s contract before that. Davis’ play allowed him to showcase his skills allowing the Raptors to gain a piece of necessity while maintaining their core.

This made the decision easy for the Raptors. Amir proved to be a leader on this team, had obviously worked on his game over the offseason, loved Toronto and was already contractually invested; therefore keeping Amir was the logical thing to do. By shipping out Davis, Amir no longer had any real competition for minutes at the in the front court. Jonas and Andrea were still returning from injury, the Raptors just acquired Rudy Gay and started going with more small-ball line-ups, so Amir was in. In practice, there’s a lack of depth on this team so going against the likes of Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray doesn’t provide the Raptors with interior competition at every position. However it’s safe to say that Amir has earned every one of his minutes this season.

In 25 games as a starter this season the Raptors have gone 10-15 (.400) while Amir has averaged 13.2ppg & 10.2 reb 2.0 ast 1.8 blk 1.3 stl in 35mins/game. Since the departure of Davis, Johnson has basically had 2 months of unchallenged minutes with respects to the attempts of Andrea Bargnani to return to form. In that time Amir has averaged 11.9 ppg & 9.6 reb in 31mins of action. It’s not like this was Lowry vs. Calderon where one player is handed the keys, this situation differs because opportunity presented itself for Amir, and he took it the moment it was available.  When it comes to Amir Johnson, you know what you’re going to get from this mobile big-man; efficiency, rebounds, hustle, a slow-firing mid-range jumper and a baby hook. His numbers as a starter are no doubt impressive and his play this season could warrant some votes for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Since his return to the starting line-up Amir has set out to prove that he’s more than just a rotation big man by totaling a monstrous 63 rebounds over his last four games. Without anyone else in rotation, the Raptors will ride Amir’s back for heavy minutes for the remainder of the season.

The major gripe with Amir has always been his tendency to commit fouls. Unwarranted or not, that’s Amir’s thing and the reason he not able to stay on the court for consistent minutes. This season Amir leads the NBA in total fouls committed and is averaging a career high 3.8 personal fouls each game. This can be viewed as acceptable only for the reason that as a sub, you’re expected to come in and play harder since you have less time on the court. That hard play usually resulted in early exits for Amir as he averages the same amount of fouls while playing 10 less minutes.

Most see Amir as a 3rd big, used to come in and play hard because he lacks a polished offensive game. From that he gains most of his baskets from working hard as opposed to refined skill, which is the long-term concern that surrounds Amir’s game.

Amir’s placement in the starting line-up is likely one that will last until the end of the season with Andrea Bargnani being shutdown. From here on in is where the real tryout for Amir begins all over again. Now that he’s likely the last power-forward standing, Amir will have wait his time out to battle again next season for minutes with whoever else the Raptors may potentially bring in to fill the gaping whole in their roster.

If the Raptors acquire a talented big-man this offseason, or if Bargnani ends up returning at full-form, Johnson will have to prove himself all over again. If Johnson plans on validating his position as a starting power-forward in this league he’s going to have to compete with a starting-caliber power forward at practice first.

Can Amir Johnson be the starting power-forward for the Toronto Raptors? Based on his double-double numbers, unlimited hustle and leadership, yes. However the only way people in Raptorland will ever accept this will be if he takes the position from a player who’s perceived as more talented as him.

Amir Johnson sees himself as something much more than just a 3rd big on this team, he wants to be a household name. Yet again, he will have to earn it.

 

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