WASHINGTON - The four-year, $50 million contract didn’t change Tyler Johnson’s relentless work ethic, humble demeanor or urgency to fix the gap in his teeth. But it did change expectations, and Johnson is pushing himself to deliver more after a season of considerable growth but also some frustration in the past week.
For the $5.6 million he’s earning this season, Johnson has been a bargain. He will be next season, too, at $5.8 million. But the salary jumps to $19.2 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and Johnson knows more will be needed.
Does he believe he has justified the contract, which was presented by the Brooklyn Nets and matched by the Heat?
“I guess,” he said. “I haven't reached the potential I know I can get to. So I wouldn't say yes just yet because I know there is still a few more levels for me to go. Sometimes I will do things and say, ‘Wow, I could see myself doing this and this is the type of player I could be.’
And then I could come out another game and I just don't get to it. I'm trying to find that consistent balance of being a dependable player every single game. I know where I want to get to as a player and this is just a stepping stone of where I can be at. I know there is a huge ceiling I can get to. This year, what I'm most proud of is trying to figure out ways to try to get there. Before, it was just a dream. Now I understand how to get there.”
There has been a lot to like about Johnson’s breakout season:
• Among players who haven’t made a start this season, Johnson ranks second in scoring at 13.6, behind only Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter 14.4.
• Before the season, Johnson said the player he could see himself hopefully becoming, the one he would be pleased to have a
comparable career to, would be Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year (2010, 2014, 2016). Turns out, Johnson has averaged more points this season than Crawford (13.6 to 12.2) and has shot better (43.2 to 41.1).
• He’s second in the league in blocks among all shooting guards with 44, behind only Danny Green’s 55.
But he also knows more is needed. He missed two key free throws and a layup in the final 2:10 of the recent loss to the Knicks, then shot 4 for 13 and had a key late-game shot blocked in last Sunday’s loss to Denver.
He’s shooting 9 for 29 over the past three games, including 2 for 7 in Friday’s critical loss at Toronto. Oddly, he’s 7 for 11 on threes but 2 for 18 on twos.
His shooting percentage has dropped from 48.6 percent last season to 43.2, with the decline less dramatic in threes (36.6, down from 38). That’s partly a byproduct of his volume of shots increasing dramatically.
He’s still very hard on himself. After that recent Knicks loss, he went to the upstairs practice gym to work on free throws and other parts of his game.
“I've done [that] two or three times this season but not a lot,” Johnson said. “I am getting to a place now where I don't hold onto it. Go back, enjoy my family, and come back committed and understand what I did wrong instead of trying to will it.”
He said he has worked on trying to deal with failure better.
“It’s something I've had to work at because in the past it would take away from future performance,” he said. “It would take away from future things I was trying to accomplish from feeling bad from something else.
“You understand there will be nights the ball will not go in the bucket. But as long as you're getting the looks you wanted, as long as it's not affecting other things like your defense, you've got be happy with it.”
It’s unusual for a young player to prefer coming off the bench, but Johnson said he likes sitting initially and “just seeing how the defense is playing us. Usually gives me a chance to calm my mind and I am able to take a deep breath before I go in there and concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing.”
Johnson admits he prefers playing off the ball but will always accept the point guard responsibilities with which he’s been entrusted and vows to keep working at it. His assist-to-turnover ratio has improved considerably; he’s averaging 3.2 assists to 1.2 turnovers.
And Johnson, incidentally, said he finally will fix that gap in his teeth this summer “because I don't want my other teeth to get messed up because I don't have it.”
He also will look to expand his game – especially defensively.
“I feel I can be just as good of a player as anybody in this league,” he said. “But I didn't know how I was going to get there. Now I'm starting to see bits and pieces of what I can do to change my game.”
• Per Elias, DeMar DeRozan’s 25 point first half against Miami (he closed with 38) was the first time in his 594-game career that DeRozan scored 25 or more points in the first half of a game. Prior to DeRozan, the last Toronto player with at least 25 first-half points in a game was Chris Bosh, who registered 25 points in the first two quarters of a 37-point performance against Memphis on Oct. 30, 2009.
The most critical 4 1/2 hour stretch of the Heat’s season begins at 5 p.m. Saturday when the Bulls play and includes three other critical games, including Miami at Washington at 7 p.m. Click here for my post on 10 things you need to know about schedules and two and three-team tiebreakers that could affect the Heat.