Tyler Johnson’s list of block victims this season is both pretty lenghthy and star-studded.
It includes Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas, a Who’s Who collection of All-Star guards.
But it’s not so much who is on the list that’s impressive. It’s moreso the fact Johnson, 24, ranks second among all guards in blocks with 27 this season.
And even that is a bit of a joke. Only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokoumpo, an athletic 6-11 playmaker who technically qualifies as a guard-forward, has more with 72 blocks.
For a franchise that had Dwyane Wade for 13 years, who has the most blocks all-time by a player 6-4 or shorter (he’s also right behind Johnson on the blocks list this season by a guard with 24), Johnson is starting to make a name for himself with his own collection of swats.
“I definitely watched how [Wade] did it,” said Johnson, who went into Tuesday’s game against the Golden State Warriors with a block in seven consecutive games including one which helped the Heat pull out its last victory over the Sacramento Kings. “I didn't necessarily take it from him, but I took the mindset of being able to block other players.”
Unlike Wade, who would often leave the player he was guarding to help provide some team defense and would occassionally swat centers and other big men in the league, Johnson’s style has been more concentrated on blocking the player he is guarding. The only center Johnson has blocked this season is Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter.
“Dwyane would do that because he was so far ahead of the game on the scouting report,” Johnson said. “I’ve had the anticipation where I want to go over and do it, but I don’t pull the trigger on just leaving my man to go do something like that.”
That confidence Johnson believes will come with time. For now, he’s concentrating more on altering the shots of the guys he’s guarding when they attack the rim.
Of Johnson’s 27 swats, 21 have come on drives or layup attempts, mostly as he’s been trailing or trying to defend the shot from an angle. Blessed with a 42-inch vertical, it’s pretty easy for Johnson to catchup and swat shots.
“I’ve gotten better with the anticipation since I've been in the league, but I've always been able to go chase people down,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better at blocking shots that aren’t in transition. It just means you’re locked in and ahead of the play.
“You definitely start to think twice [when you get blocked]. Even me, if somebody blocks my jump shot from behind or something like that you definitely maybe take an extra peek over there. It’s in the back of your head. You definitely start to think about it.”
Johnson’s defensive metrics this season say he’s holding the players he’s guarding to 0.9 percent below their season average and 43 percent shooting overall. Those numbers make him no better than an above-average one-on-one defender. But his ability to block shots obviously put him on another level.
“He’s relentless to the end of the possession,” Spoelstra said of Johnson, who also ranks second in scoring (13.8 points per game) among all players without a start this season league-wide. “A lot of players, particularly shot-blockers won’t put themselves out there, because they’re afraid of getting scored on or dunked on or a highlight play against ‘em. If you’re not thinking about any of that and putting yourself out there, not giving in to the competition, you’ll make a lot of plays. You’ll also get scored on. And he doesn't care about that.”
The only difference right now between Johnson and Wade, Spoelstra said, is that Wade blocks centers.
“Most perimeter players wouldn’t have the guts or courage to go up there and make a play, knowing they could be on SportsCenter,” Spoelstra said. “They would bail out and make a half-hearted swipe at the ball and say, ‘I couldn’t get there in time.’ Dwyane and Tyler and J-Rich [Josh Richardson], they’re not wired that way. If they’re down there and something happens and there’s a play to be made, they go up there and put themselves out there.”