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Film Room: James Johnson Is Minnesota’s Swiss Army Knife

Studying the film of Minnesota’s newest do-it-all glue guy.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

With fan favorite Robert Covington being shipped out and the new backcourt pairing of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley arriving in Minnesota, it was easy for James Johnson’s arrival to get lost in the trade deadline hubbub. If anything, most fans took exception to the move knowing that fan favorite and overall good guy Gorgui Dieng making way for the 10-year veteran. Possessing a $16 million player option he is almost certain to opt into next season, Johnson seemed to represent one of the few sideways or even backward moves that president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas had made during a frantic week of player movement.

Just six games into his Timberwolves tenure, the 33-year-old has eliminated any concern that he will be a salary cap dampener who struggles to make an impact on the court. After featuring in just 18 games for the Miami Heat this season, Johnson has made an immediate splash as an impact player and seems to be flourishing with consistent minutes on a team that is mired in roster turnover and injury trouble.

Throughout those seven games, including one start, Johnson has averaged 25.3 minutes per game, finding himself playing in an assortment of roles. That works fine for Johnson, as his Swiss Army knife game is suited to almost any situation he is dropped into. Despite Minnesota’s abhorrent record, he is excelling, averaging 11.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Extrapolated out to per 36 minute numbers, which might be closer to his actual game time if the team wasn’t prioritizing minutes for rookie Naz Reid, his numbers balloon to an extremely pleasing 16.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists 2.1 steals and 2.5 blocks a night.

Even in what seems to be a high-powered offense, Johnson has featured heavily. Despite often being the tallest player in the lineup and manning the center position on defense, he has handled the ball in a pseudo-point guard role. As is the norm with anything he has been tasked with thus far, he has taken all in his stride.

As the lead ball-handler, Johnson is able to build up a head of steam and bully his way to the front of the rim. With his 240 lb frame, he is tough to stop for backpedaling defenders once he gets to trucking downhill. Even at that size, he is deceptively quick and agile. Look at how sharp the initial crossover and change of direction is and how he keeps the ball moving to avoid getting stripped, draw the foul and finish with a soft touch.

Since arriving in Minnesota, Johnson is shooting 60 percent from within five feet of the basket on 4.3 attempts per game. It’s not an elite number, but given he has been thrust into a role where he is constantly taking defenders off the dribble and finishing through the trees at the rim, it’s very respectable.

Another skill set Johnson has flashed through his time as a point-center is his ability to set the table for cutters and shooters. With better spacing on the court thanks to the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, the non-shooting leftovers of the previous Wolves regime have had open fields to move into without defenders easily blocking their path.

Jarrett Culver is one of those non-shooters. And he has been the beneficiary of some exceptional vision and execution from Johnson. Against Denver, the rookie was on the end of a spectacular bounce pass that parted the defense like the Red Sea and he was the recipient of a slick drop off dime in the win over Miami. Culver has struggled and Johnson knows that, so it’s important for Culver’s ever-dwindling confidence that he is spoon-fed some easy ones.

When Johnson isn’t throwing dimes like a true point guard, he can bring the ball up and immediately turn the set into effective hand-off action. With his big body and competent technique, Johnson can deter defenders and give his shooters, like the red-hot Malik Beasley in this clip, a more impenetrable shield than your average ball-handler initiating a hand-off sequence.

Fortunately for Minnesota, who have lacked shooting for the better part of a half-century, Johnson doesn’t just find shooting targets with his impressive vision, he can hit the 3-ball at an honorable clip, too. Even after going 0-3 in against the Miami Heat, he is still connecting on a 33.3 percent in Wolves colors. That includes 41.7 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers — looks he will get far more often when Karl-Anthony Towns returns and starts firing passes out of post-up double-teams again.

While all of his offensive work is handy, the Timberwolves have plenty of offensive firepower. It’s on the defensive side of the floor where they have been beaten to death consistently this season, especially since they relinquished the defensive mastermind that is Robert Covington. That’s where Johnson has really stepped up and provided a shining light in an otherwise gloomy scenario.

His martial arts and kickboxing background is the reason he has earned the moniker of ‘Bloodsport’, but Johnson is just as hellacious a defender as he is a fighter. His aforementioned size and agility help him move around the court and stick with scorers big and small, but it’s his defensive IQ and fast hands that give really aid his defensive expertise.

This play against Jayson Tatum, who is in blistering scoring form at the moment, is the perfect example of his game-changing defense. Tatum is forced to spin back to his opposite hand after Johnson digs in and clogs his driving lane, when he does, Bloodsport reads it perfectly, flings a hand out and denies the attempt.

With the disastrous defenders that are usually surrounding him, his excellent effort on the defensive end won’t show up in the defensive rating numbers, but he really has made a difference so far.

Head coach Ryan Saunders has certainly noticed.

“I give a lot of credit to James Johnson,” he said after the surprising win over Miami. “He’s changing our team right now,”

Succinct but accurate. Johnson is everywhere on defense and his versatility is glaring. He had multiple stops on Wolves fan favorite Jimmy Butler in the latest win, stifled Tatum as well as anyone against the Boston Celtics and gave Luka Doncic all he could handle when he was switched onto him against the Dallas Mavericks.

After Johnson is left leaning the wrong way from a patented Doncic crossover, he recovers remarkably quickly and launches himself at Doncic’s signature stepback. Swatting it away for good measure.

If those All-Star wings aren’t impressive enough, he can also smother guards. Here, he forces Jamal Murray to give up the ball and his dreams of pulverizing another switched big before catching Nikola Jokic asleep at the wheel and pinching the ball from him.

In the same breath, he can also put the clamps on players much bigger and longer than him. He makes shadowing the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis and stuffing the Latvian’s layup back down his throat look like a stroll through the Minnesota Skyways on this play.

He might not have been the sexiest name to land in Minnesota during one of the busiest trade deadline weeks in recent memory, but there is no doubting James Johnson’s impact has been enormous.

That player option that was once thought to be a hassle is quickly turning into a bonus. Minnesota needs players who can defend multiple positions with staunchness and his offensive versatility is a huge boost to a team that looks destined to score bucketfuls on a nightly basis.

Long may it continue.