Miami Heat

Heat’s James Johnson has strong case to be league’s Most Improved Player

The Heat’s James Johnson denies the Raptors’ Jakob Poeltl during the second quarter of a March 23rd game at AmericanAirliness Arena.
The Heat’s James Johnson denies the Raptors’ Jakob Poeltl during the second quarter of a March 23rd game at AmericanAirliness Arena. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The NBA’s Most Improved Player award has gone to a Miami Heat player twice before.

Rony Seikaly won it 1990 and Isaac Austin won it seven years later.

Although he’s facing some stiff competition, one could argue James Johnson has as good a shot as any player in the league to become the Heat’s third recipient.

Based on combined statistical improvements in scoring, rebounding and assist averages from last season to this season, no player in the league has made a bigger jump than Johnson (+12.4) according to STATS. That’s better than Denver’s Nikola Jokic (+11.7), Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (+11.2) and Phoenix’s Devin Booker (+9.7), who are the next three players on the list.

“He made the biggest commitment, and it was to himself,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday of Johnson. “To really push himself to be something different, to commit to the work, to his profession, being the best version he could possibly be of himself, and he was very open to our culture and us helping him get to somewhere different.

“But he’s been awesome. I love JJ. I love his competitive spirit that he brings every single day. JJ is just one of those guys you want to be around. I’m sure he always was the guy that can get along with anybody at school – the jocks, the nerds and everybody in between. He just makes you feel better about yourself. That’s why he’s such had an impact, not just on the game.”

Heat point guard Goran Dragic was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player three seasons ago when he earned All-NBA Third Team honors in Phoenix.

Asked if Johnson is the league’s best candidate for the award, Dragic smiled.

“If I’m honest I didn’t even know he could play like that,” Dragic said. “Last year everytime we played against Toronto he didn’t play. It’s tough to notice a guy who is not playing. I’d never seen him play before. When he came to this training camp I said ‘Who is that guy?’ He's such a dominant force. He can do everything. I mean if somebody asked me I’m surprised they didn’t play him before. But yeah, definitely agree, most improved.”

Johnson, 30, has surpassed his career highs in many categories this season, including points, rebounds, assists, field goals made, three-point field goals made and free throws made.

He’s also been an excellent defender, giving up just 21.6 percent (8-of-37) shooting to the player he is guarding on isolation plays, the second-lowest percentage in the entire league by players with at least 40 isolation situations. Additionally, Johnson is giving up just 0.5 points per isolation possession (24 total points), tying the lowest among all players in the NBA with at least 40 isolation situations.

His physical transformation in the last year has been well documented. He’s lost nearly 40 pounds since joining the Heat.

“You’re happy for guys that make that commitment to themselves,” Spoelstra said. “When they see the benefits of that, it feeds off of that and you want more and you keep on going for more. He’s been very dedicated. There’s been nothing easy about that, to transform his body and his career. It’s been a lot of sweat equity to get to that point.”

The NBA will announce all of its award recipients including league MVP during its first-ever end of the season awards show in New York on June 26.

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