Just after midnight on Nov. 21, reports began to come out that the Mavericks were apart of a three-team trade. It initially sounded like Trevor Ariza would be heading to Dallas. After the dust settled about half an hour later, it was clarified that the Mavericks would instead be acquiring James Johnson.
Johnson is a well-documented tough guy. He not only has a second-degree black belt, but also a perfect 20-0 kickboxing record. On the basketball court, he’s been known to participate in some scuffles. Despite his record of getting into scrappy situations, he almost always is just sticking up for his teammates.
When the Mavericks fanbase was reminded of Johnson’s toughness, the jokes quickly poured in. GIFs of WWE matches were compared to Johnson protecting Luka Doncic from Marcus Morris. They were funny, and I enjoyed them! I just had one problem: it didn’t feel like Johnson, the player, was getting enough attention.
After being traded to the Timberwolves, Johnson strung together a really interesting final 14 games of the season. Not really fitting into a traditional role on the court, Johnson played as a small-ball five, power forward, and point forward. His utility was something the Mavericks could use, and it’s showing already.
In his first three games as a Maverick, Johnson averaged 3.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. They aren’t breathtaking numbers, but it’s a good indication of how much utility he provides. The Mavericks are using Johnson as a reserve to come into the game and fill a variety of roles. The type of players he’s played alongside most vary widely, and it shows how he can be plugged into almost any lineup.
Johnson has come into games and immediately made an impact with his defense. His instincts have been on display early — shooting passing lanes, locking down Lebron James and perfectly defending pick-and-rolls.
The passing display from Johnson has also been really enjoyable to watch. Johnson looks good and comfortable bringing the ball up the court. His ability to facilitate the offense could allow the Mavericks to run some interesting lineups with Jalen Brunson and Trey Burke on the court. Johnson making these fancy passes also brings a smile to my face.
Johnson has demonstrated his ability to do a little bit of everything over the first three games. He’s 1-of-3 on three-point attempts, 4-of-5 on free throws and has 12 rebounds. He also has the second-highest total plus-minus on the Mavericks at plus-20. Johnson is going to make noise in a lot of different ways this season — knock down open shots, pass the ball well, facilitate the offense and play good defense.
Adding a piece like this to the Mavericks’ bench was one of my wishlist items for the offseason. His impact on the court won’t always be obvious or show up on highlight reels, but the do-it-all forward is already showing how he can provide value to this team.