When you think of the eminent isolation players in the NBA, you think of DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and… James Johnson.
Yeah, James Johnson. When most people think about Johnson, I’m sure ideas of a high-energy bench player surface.
Perhaps, if you’re a more avid NBA fan, Johnson’s martial arts background comes to mind; but surely not his isolation play, that stuff is for the jab-stepping knock-down shooters. But it turns out that the Miami Heat swingman is exceptional in isolation. He's more than good, he’s 91st percentile good, per Synergy Sports.
With 20 games under his belt, Johnson is averaging 1.171 points per isolation possession, according to Synergy Sports; and on 35 such possessions, this is getting further way from an aberration by the bucket. Johnson has shown the ability to take control of his offensive destiny before. In the 2014-15 NBA season, Johnson was still with the Toronto Raptors and displayed similar skills when given a chance; on 116 isolation possessions, Johnson was putting up 0.983 points per possession, which under the scope of a full season is impressive. (Johnson played 70 of 82 games in his 2014-15 campaign.)
Known affectionately as “Bloodsport” Johnson gets his isolation buckets how you would imagine someone with that nickname would: by ruthlessly attacking the basket. With his surprisingly good handle, he can break down and cross over his opponents or, since he plays small-ball power forward, just blow by slower bigs. He’s a particularly violent dunker, too.
You would imagine a player as isolation dominant as James Johnson uses up a lot of his team’s offensive possessions. After all, right after spot-ups, isolation plays are his second-most utilized play types, per Synergy Sports. But Johnson’s usage rate is a modest 18.9-percent, per NBA.com/Stats. Out of Miami’s 14-man roster, Johnson ranks ninth in usage rate.
Those numbers might leave you wondering why Johnson doesn’t get even more run. For one, there’s no telling what James “Bloodsport” Johnson would do with a bigger offensive load, and it would be impossible to project without extrapolating. Johnson is already enjoying a usage rate that is higher than both his past two seasons’ figures, and he’s handling it swimmingly.
Both Johnson’s field goal attempts and 3-point attempts are up from last year. The previous season in Toronto, Johnson put up 66 3-pointers. In 20 games this season, Johnson has launched 61. In the past three years, Johnson’s 3-point heaves have increased each year, and so has his 3-point percentage. So, assuming Johnson makes six more 3’s in the next 62 games, we can expect this trend will continue.
Johnson also happens to be one of Miami’s good plus-defenders, too. With Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson sidelined, Johnson is one of the only playable guys that can defend perimeter players.
Someone must’ve forgotten to tell good ole Bloodsport that isolation players don’t play defense.