Chris Johnson played 789 minutes in 40 games for the Boston Celtics last season. He finished with zero starts and made fewer than 40 percent of his shots.
But Johnson came to the Celtics understanding the number of points he tallied would never be as noticeable as how he could get them. He stuck to three-pointers—nearly six out of every 10 shot attempts Johnson tallied came from behind the arc—free throws and layups in transition.
He's the analytical thinker’s ideal swingman.
Before the Celtics signed him to his first 10-day contract, Johnson was a key contributor for Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s D-League test tube: the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In the 20 games he was there, Johnson posted an 18.5 player efficiency rating, with a 61.0 percent True Shooting Percentage and .523 three-point rate.
Those numbers rightfully caught Danny Ainge’s eye.
Now, armed with three non-guaranteed years left on a four-year deal signed February 7, can Johnson assert himself in Boston’s rotation next season? How about cracking the starting lineup?
The Celtics had little to smile about last year. The organization was in flux, and a majority of its roster consisted of journeymen and stopgap signings, most of them undrafted.
Johnson, with all but 100 minutes of previous NBA experience heading into October, was one of them, except he wound up exceeding all and any expectations. He shot just 33.9 percent from behind the three-point line, but was lights out in the corner, upping that number to a splendid 45.7 percent there.
Here’s what Celtics head coach Brad Stevens had to say about Johnson when the team signed him, as told to CBS Boston’s Brian Robb:
I think it’s more motor than speed. If you lined everybody up and ran them in a contest running up and down the court, I don’t know that he’d win, necessarily, against everybody in the NBA. But I think his desire to get there every time, his conditioning level’s excellent, and he’s been well-drilled prior to getting here with those things as well. You see that all the time. We talk about big guys with motors a lot. You don’t always talk about that with guards and wings. He’s got a high motor. He gets to his spots quickly.
What Stevens is mostly talking about here is how well Johnson runs the floor in transition. Not only does he have great length and an ability to shoot, but he also understands his role and the things he needs to do to stay on the floor.
Johnson made 43.3 percent of his transition three-pointers last season. Here are two.
Johnson has great size, can shoot threes and understands his place. Even before noting the fact that he won’t even make $1 million next year, his on-court impact is already valuable to a team parched for spacing.
Last season, the Celtics ranked 28th in three-point percentage, with 19 teams making more of them. This is the most important area in need of drastic improvement if they want their overall offensive rating to be league average (at least).
Boston has so many moving parts this summer, including current starting shooting guard Avery Bradley, who is a restricted free agent. Rajon Rondo is obviously the point guard, and for Johnson to enter the starting lineup it’d most likely be at small forward, pushing Jeff Green (another player who could easily wear a different colored jersey next season) to the bench.
This is where things get a little interesting. Rondo, Bradley and Johnson shared the floor in only 10 games last season, logging 42 minutes. But in that time, the Celtics averaged 116.6 points per 100 possessions, a totally insane number that’d by far pass for the best offense in the NBA.
There’s no chance that number would sustain itself over the course of an entire season (42 minutes together isn’t even one full game of action), but good numbers are better than bad ones, and it’s a small nugget of information Stevens will take with him into next year knowing he can experiment with.
When just Johnson and Rondo shared the court (a more reliable 252 minutes), Boston’s offense scored 2.8 more points per 100 possessions than the team's season average, but the defense fell apart.
Johnson won't make any All-Star Games or ever lead an NBA team in scoring. But he's an intriguing 24-year-old whose skill set happens to be all the rage among NBA intellectuals right now. He also plays very hard and very smart.
It's far from a good sign if he's in Boston's starting lineup on next season's opening night, but as someone who provides 15-20 minutes of quality production in a role that has room for expansion, Johnson and his price tag are a perfect fit for the next couple seasons.