Miami Heat

Doubting Dion Waiters and James Johnson? Johnson has a message: ‘Doubt at your own risk’

Last season didn’t go as planned for Heat forward James Johnson.

Johnson missed the first 15 games because of offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. He then lost his spot in the starting lineup. And at one point, he even fell out of the rotation.

“I thought JJ at times last year played extremely well,” Heat president Pat Riley said in June. “And you know when Erik [Spoelstra] is filling out his game plan or his rotation for the night, it’s based on a lot of different factors. But JJ again, not to make an excuse for him because he’s a grown a-- man, came off a pretty severe hernia. ... He came off something that was more serious than that.”

Johnson finished the season with averages of 7.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from from three-point range in 55 games (33 starts). He was taken out of the starting lineup in February and played off the bench for the remainder of the season, and was an active scratch for seven consecutive games in March due in part to the emergence of Derrick Jones Jr.

If Johnson was limited last season by injury, he won’t admit it.

“If I tell someone then the opposition would know. And that’s not what I’m about,” Johnson said Saturday night, as he watched the Big3 basketball games at AmericanAirlines Arena. “They don’t need to know and I don’t make excuses. And every time I strap up my laces, I’m ready regardless of the situation. The year I had last year was the year I had last year and I accepted that and I moved on and this summer will tell.”

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Johnson, 32, is hoping his summer work speaks for itself next season. While Heat guard Dion Waiters has used social media to document his offseason workouts and even posted a before-and-after photo to show off a trimmer physique, Johnson has also quietly dedicated this summer to making 2019-20 a bounce-back season.

“Dion is adamant about his and I’m more silent,” Johnson said. “We’ve been grinding and we’ve been working together on and off. I feel like he’s ready. He looks the best that I’ve seen since he’s been a Miami Heat. And I’m healthy. Like he said — doubt at your own risk.”

Johnson has yet to replicate the impressive stretch he put together over the second half of 2016-17. He averaged 13.9 points on 46.8 percent shooting, five rebounds and 4.3 assists during the Heat’s 30-11 run to end that regular season.

Johnson is entering the third season of a four-year, $60 million free agent deal he signed with the Heat in the summer of 2017 following that breakout season. With a 2019-20 salary of $15.3 million, he’s the third-highest paid player on Miami’s roster behind only Jimmy Butler ($32.7 million) and Goran Dragic ($19.2 million).

But that doesn’t mean Johnson feels like he’s entitled to getting his starting spot back.

“Whatever Coach Spo puts me at, the minutes, whatever, I’m going to be OK with that,” he said. “I’m at a point in my career where I work hard, I play and I do whatever I have to do. If I was to complain about that, then we wouldn’t have no UD in our locker room.”

The Heat’s locker room will include Udonis Haslem, though. The veteran forward announced on Tuesday that he’s returning for a 17th season.

“It made my season. And we haven’t even started yet,” Johnson said of getting Haslem back as a teammate. “Absolutely. Because he’s the one to hold people in check. He wants confrontation and he’ll call people out. As a leader, you want him to call people out. And I’m not excluding myself. I’ve been called out by UD a lot of times. And that’s the gratitude of it. You take it and you keep moving.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.