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Hawks' Joe Johnson Playing His Way into Serious 2010 Free Agent Money

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2009

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 26:  Joe Johnson #2 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots over Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic at Philips Arena on November 26, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the current top 10  players in the NBA will become a free agent on July 1, 2010, and his name is not LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh.

Who's left in that top 10 list? The Hawks' Joe Johnson, a man who has assumed leadership of the early season's biggest surprise out of the East.

Before this season started, NBA talking heads pegged Boston, Orlando, and Cleveland as the East's top three seeds in some order (a real ballsy call, considering they were the top three last season and that they all improved in the offseason).

Now, a month into the season, Atlanta has powered its way into the discussion of the top contenders from the East.  The Hawks ranked No. 1 in NBA.com's Power Rankings and ESPN.com's Power Rankings only two weeks ago, after they shocked just about everyone by jumping out to an 8-2 record after the first few weeks of the season.

Joe Johnson's game has been a main reason for the Hawks' ascension into the top tier of Eastern Conference teams this season.

Give Josh Smith credit: He seems to have learned to harness his talents (and to not keep jacking up three-pointers) as he continues his development into one of the NBA's best power forwards. He clogs up the middle, leads the league with 2.6 blocks per game, and, combined with Al Horford, gives Atlanta the best young frontcourt in the NBA.

And Jamal Crawford may turn out to be the most underrated pickup of the offseason, as he's provided the Hawks a dynamic threat off the bench that can consistently abuse opponents' second units.

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But the star of this Hawks team has been Johnson, an eight-year pro who has managed to toil in relative obscurity during his years in Atlanta, especially compared to the 24/7 coverage of superstars like LeBron and Kobe. (When you don't even have to use a guy's last name and people know who you're talking about...)

Johnson was drafted 10th by the Celtics in 2001 and traded to Phoenix midway through the 2001-02 season, before being signed and traded to Atlanta in 2005 in exchange for Boris Diaw and two first-round draft picks. (If the Suns aren't kicking themselves now, thinking about what a core of Johnson, Steve Nash, and Amare Stoudemire could look like...)

Despite posting shockingly similar career statistics to Portland's Brandon Roy (Roy: 19.8 pts, 4.6 reb, 5.1 ast, 1.0 stl, 46 percent FG, 36 percent 3-pt; Johnson: 17.3 pts, 4.2 reb, 4.4 ast, 1.0 stl, 44 percent FG, 37 percent 3-pt), Johnson has only earned two reserve spots on All-Star teams over the course of his eight-year career.

In the past two years, Johnson has only improved on those career statistics, averaging a ridiculous 21.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and a steal per game on 43.5 percent shooting.  

The guy's been the most silent monster in the league, finding his way into the NBA's top 20 in a number of categories, and nearly leading the Hawks to a first round upset over the Boston Celtics two years ago, in a memorable first-round series during the C's run to their 17th NBA championship.

Before this season started, Johnson declined a four-year, $60 million extension offer from the Hawks, opting to test out free agency in 2010 instead.

With LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh also set to become free agents in 2010, and players having struggled to find huge contracts in free agency last year (with the largest being Hedo Turkoglu's and Ben Gordon's $50 million-plus deals), Johnson's decision to come out in free agency raised some eyebrows.

But Johnson seemed to know something the rest of us didn't before the season:

"I've got some goals set to be one of the elite players in the league," he said. "It's going to be an exciting year."

Despite ranking in the NBA's top 20 in points, assists, shots, three-point shots, and minutes last season, Johnson's prediction may prove even more prophetic, as he's become the leader of a Hawks team with threats at every position.

The biggest danger for a team like the Hawks is for the team to not understand its late-game identity and lack a go-to scorer. Johnson has willingly stepped into that role this year, making a habit of coming through in their most needed times.

Just last night, Johnson scored 31 points (along with seven rebounds and three assists) to pace the Hawks past the Dallas Mavericks in a low-scoring battle between two high-quality teams. He scored over 30 points in back-to-back wins over Portland and Miami in the week after the Hawks found their way to the No. 1 slot in NBA.com's power rankings, doing his damndest to prove that the Hawks belong in the conversation of championship caliber teams.

With Johnson becoming an unquestioned leader of a team that's gotten the attention of the rest of the NBA, one could only assume that if Johnson continues his current quality of play, his decision to not accept the Hawks' contract extension offer may pay off after all.

Before this season started, the summer of 2010 was the summer of LeBron and Friends (friends being fellow Olympians Wade and Bosh).

Now?  It's time to put Johnson's name in that top tier of superstar free agents available during the summer of 2010.  

The summer of 'Bron, Wade, Bosh, and Johnson?

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