Johnson represents what’s sometimes referred to as a redraft candidate. Essentially, when a prospect becomes available after his rookie deal without much of a free-agent market, a second team can “redraft” that player. The idea is several-fold. Maybe this second team can reap the benefits of a player who has put in development time and is now nearer his peak, ready to contribute without four years of investment. If the player hasn’t succeeded, perhaps a change of scenery and development program will help him take the next step. Mostly, though, these are players who were once considered elite prospects or assets — high-level picks unavailable to teams without down years or lottery fortune — and are now available at a far lesser cost.
There are limitations to oversimplifying the redraft thinking, of course. It’s not a surefire way to find contributors. The draft itself is not the most efficient distribution of talent, and betting that there’s high-end NBA talent there simply because one team thought highly of a player years ago can be flawed thinking. What’s more, experience tends to be as fair a gauge of development curves as age. That is, age alone is not a reason for optimism. Pascal Siakam is old by prospect standards but clearly ascendant on a path outside the norm. The counter would be a player young in age who’s had ample time in the standard development pipeline, including NBA minutes, and failed to improve.
Through those lenses, Johnson is not a sure thing. There is a reason the Detroit Pistons gave up on him after three-plus seasons and flipped him to the New Orleans Pelicans, who opted to let him become an unrestricted free agent rather than continuing the short look they got at him post-deadline. Johnson had multiple suitors, according to league sources, although it’s unclear whether any were interested beyond the league minimum. The Raptors went a little further than that, signing him for the amount of the bi-annual exception.
(The deal is actually for a little less than initially reported, per a source, and will fit into the bi-annual exception if the Raptors choose to structure their offseason that way. The Raptors could slot Johnson into the bi-annual exception and preserve the roughly $8.4 million of the midlevel exception they still have available for one bigger signing. If such a signing never materializes, they could instead slot Johnson into a chunk of the midlevel, preserving the bi-annual exception for next season. They figure to be a below-cap team in the summer of 2020, though, and so there won’t be much cost to Johnson taking up the bi-annual. This is all just to say that the Raptors went above the minimum to secure Johnson but haven’t sacrificed much flexibility by doing so.)
The Raptors were not only willing to go over the minimum, but they also gave Johnson a player option on the second year of the deal. That option is small enough that it won’t be a big deal if he picks it up, even in what projects as a cap-flush offseason. It does speak to the somewhat limited upside at play with the deal, though. If the Johnson experiment fails, he’ll opt in for 2020-21 and eat into cap space. If it succeeds or he thrives, he’ll opt out and the Raptors will have only non-Bird rights on him. There’s not a clear long-term benefit to the Raptors for the situation working out on the current contract, and ideally there’d be some team-side control in the event it worked out.
Not every contract has to be defined by surplus value, and the Raptors know better than almost anyone why furthering a reputation for player development can be helpful. It is surely a part of why Johnson opted to try rehabilitating his value and continuing his progress in Toronto. Help Johnson progress, and the next free agent in the same situation might come, too. The Raptors would also conceivably have the inside track to sign Johnson to a new deal if things went well and he opted out (using cap space rather than rights, in all likelihood). There’s also an entire 2019-20 season to compete in, and the Raptors feel Johnson can help to that end now while also offering some genuine developmental upside.
What they like in him is fairly obvious, despite a tough start to his career. Johnson is 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, with a 7-foot wingspan and the capability to guard three and maybe four positions. From a defensive standpoint, he fits exactly what the Raptors have long looked to do. He has great functional size, offers positional (or positionless) versatility and switchability and, perhaps most importantly, works hard at that end. His defence was far ahead of his offence from the outset, and things have continued to develop that way. Advanced metrics — including Synergy Sports, which sometimes struggles to capture individual defence, like most stats — have been inconsistent in evaluating his impact but have been generally favorable. Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus has graded him as worth more than one point per-100 defensive possessions in each of the past three seasons. The eye test suggests he’s good and can maybe be great.
It’s the other end of the floor where Johnson has stagnated, or even failed to get out of the starting blocks. In fact, PIPM showed Johnson as having the worst impact on offence in the entire league last year, to the tune of 4.5 points per 100 offensive possessions.
It’s not just the shooting, although that’s a big part of it. Johnson has shot 29.3 percent on over 800 career 3-point attempts, with no upward trend. It’s the type of significant-sample performance that allows opponents to ignore him completely from outside the arc. He barely scraped 30 percent from the corners last year and hit 31.4 percent of his wide-open 3. While it’s true that 3-point volume — the willingness to shoot, and therefore the threat of surrendering a 3 — that has a greater gravitational pull on defences in the macro, there is a practical limit to that when a shooter’s clean looks are such inefficient propositions.
Exacerbating that lack of shooting has been Johnson’s lack of development in other offensive areas. He has not consistently graded as even average in any play-type bucket, per Synergy Sports, occasionally flashing the ability to post up smaller guards or finish a pick and roll but never over a large sample. If there’s an encouraging sign from his time with New Orleans, it’s that Johnson’s assist rate — always soft-capped by the 10 percent marker in Detroit — spiked to nearly 16 percent. That came with a significant jump in turnover rate, too, as Johnson was simply given more opportunity to try things as the Pelicans played out the string. He’s not a bad playmaker or a black hole by any means; those skills are just not nearly enough to mask his other shortcomings yet. He’s also just a decent rebounder, cutting into some of the value a player with his size and athleticism should provide.
The Raptors have taken bets on players like this in the past, ones with physical tools and a defensive base who remain raw offensively. After more than 6,000 career NBA minutes, it might be too forgiving to call Johnson raw. At the same time, Detroit is not exactly a hotbed of player development, and he just turned 23. It’s not hard to squint and see how Johnson could at least become a functional defence-first role player, at least to the extent that he was a worthwhile flier. PIPM, however negative about his offence, still sees him as worth about two wins above replacement for 2019-20.
This is the space the Raptors are operating in for this offseason. There are no perfect roster fillers or experiments, not as a team coming off of a championship with only one pick — Dewan Hernandez, 59th overall — since OG Anunoby and limited cap flexibility to replace Leonard and Green. They knew when they acquired Leonard and then Marc Gasol that the season ahead could be this sort of transition year, and unless the market for their veterans is more robust than anticipated, their moves will be aimed at toeing the line between being solid again now and seeing who and what might provide value for the future.
The redraft candidate didn’t have to be Johnson, necessarily. It’s easy to see why the Raptors like him and why they’d go beyond the minimum and offer a player option to bring him into the fold. He has a very clear NBA skill and theoretical upside with enough time still to realize it in the Raptors’ vaunted development system. That he seems, on the surface, like a good fit from a character perspective only helps and is part of why Toronto felt comfortable giving him a shot.
With the Raptors short on Leonard replacement options, as if such a thing could possibly exist, Johnson is a reasonable flier to help fill his minutes with a non-zero chance of delivering on his pre-draft promise.