So why not insert James Johnson into the game?
You’ll never know what you’ll get with J.J. on the floor—except a turnover or two (in his first few minutes against the Celtics, he kindly handed Boston the ball).
But Tom Thibodeau decided to play Johnson (at 6'8", who usually plays small forward) instead of Keith Bogans or Ronnie Brewer, as a two guard.
Was that move by Thibs a clear sign of desperation? Indeed.
Did it work for the Bulls? You bet.
The truth is that Johnson was a key factor in the Bulls’ double-overtime win against the Suns. Now, if he can only show signs of consistency.
In the most minutes he’s played this year (23), Johnson hit five of six shots from the floor, scoring 12 points and grabbing five rebounds.
His three-pointer late in the fourth quarter was huge in the Bulls’ comeback. Then later, he made a picture-perfect cut to the basket that led to a dunk and tied the game with 45.6 seconds left. Clutch plays like those spell stardom—or at least potential.
He also had two of the Bulls seven blocks, and also two of the team’s eight steals.
These sudden energetic performances don’t seem foreign for the second-year swingman.
Remember the Bulls' home opener against the Pistons, when they were down by about 20 points at the half?
Thibs desperately scanned his bench, looking for some sort of spark.
And that spark—yes, you guessed right—was Johnson, sitting at the very end of the bench.
Late in the game, J.J. gave his team a boost with eight points, four assists, three steals, and, oh yes, a clutch three-pointer in the wee minutes of the fourth. All of this was en route to a 101-91 come-from-behind win.
Johnson has been written off after a disappointing rookie year. He's been labeled as a first-round flop as Taj Gibson stole his praise.
He was even approached by Thibs before the Bulls’ opener at Oklahoma and informed that he wouldn’t be a part of the nine-man rotation.
The odd man out, the one whose name gets shoved under the rug by undeserving guys like Brewer, Johnson still showed signs of maturity.
“I don't feel anything,” Johnson said when asked whether his performance against Detroit warrants a spot in the rotation. “I feel that if my name gets called again, then I'm going to play as hard as I can to help the team win.”
What his performance against the Suns does warrant is trust from Thibs.
But Thibs does have reasons for being hesitant with Johnson.
On top of all his Wednesday highlights, Johnson still fouled out. Most fouls come from lazy defense. Even though he dropped 26 pounds over the summer, Johnson still needs to move his feet faster and not let guys like Hakim Warrick muscle their way past him.
With Gibson and Carlos Boozer not 100 percent, the Bulls need Johnson’s size in the front court.
As of Johnson’s offense? Well, there’s something he could do about his mental lapses.
Simply put: Johnson isn't smart with the ball.
In his first few minutes in the first quarter, Johnson passed the ball straight into Steve Nash’s hands.
The Bulls committed 15 turnovers that night, three of which were by Johnson. Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson also had the same. But three coming from Johnson—a guy who isn’t supposed to handle the ball or dribble much—is unacceptable.
Often, under defensive pressure, he wants nothing to do with the ball and desperately tries to get rid of it.
But poor plays so far this season aren’t the main reason why Johnson spends more time on the bench.
The Bulls are rounding their first month of the regular season, and the most playing time Johnson had before was during Vegas Summer League, where he still had disappointing showings, even after spending countless hours in the gym during the offseason with assistant coach Adrian Griffin and team ambassador Scottie Pippen.
For Johnson, the effort is there, the talent is there, but not the brains. Yet.
His teammates know what he’s capable of.
Boozer is still out. Taj is iffy. Brewer is underperforming. Johnson has taken every opportunity he has had, and for the most part, he’s been a plus.
If he can prove that he can be consistent in games, under the sights and sounds of a crowd, then he knows he deserves more minutes.
The only one who should feel the pressure then, is Thibodeau.
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