Michael Curry will be introduced as Saunders' successor later today, and I don't think it's a stretch at all to assume a prerequisite for the job was sharing Dumars' hopes for Johnson to see more time in 2008-09. Why does a 21-year-old reserve merit so much attention? Because he's the most athletic player on Detroit's roster, and despite extremely inconsistent minutes, he's one of the most productive players in the entire league.
Wait, one of the most productive players in the league? Indeed, and that's not an exaggeration. This made it's rounds on the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago, but the blog Count the Basket compared seven different advanced metrics for evaluating player performance independent of playing time, and Johnson rated favorably in almost all of them:
Another eye-popper is seeing Amir Johnson, the 21-year-old Detroit power forward who's been riding the pine in the playoffs, ranked first in the league in Adjusted Plus/Minus. This actually isn't as great an anomaly as might be expected - Johnson rated rather well across the board. His consensus ranking was 15th. He was rated lowest by PER (64th), but he ranked 11th in Win Shares and 20th in Statistical Plus/Minus. Obviously one has to use some caution considering he played under 800 minutes on the season, but the fact that he rated well in several metrics could be a good sign for the future.This isn't just a bunch of statistical mumbo-jumbo that overvalues active reserves -- every single member of the top 10 is a current or former All-Star playing regular starter minutes, so for Johnson to rank 15th overall is a huge accomplishment. Assuming he gets more consistent minutes under Curry, he's my early pick for the 2008-09 Most Improved Player of the Year award.
I had a chance to speak with Johnson before Game 6 of the Conference Finals, and considering he grew up in the internet age (he didn't even turn 21 until last month), I was curious if he had stumbled across Count the Basket's rankings.
It was a long shot, I know, and I wasn't surprised when he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. After my muddled explanation, he seemed amused at his overall ranking. "I just take advantage of my minutes, basically. When I get in there, I just play hard and just help the team win games. I never really heard of that, but I'm glad I'm top 15," he said while laughing.
Matt Watson: Basically [the ranking] means every time you go in there, you do something: you're getting rebounds, you're blocking shots ...
Amir Johnson: That's what I look forward to doing. When I get in, I at least got to get something on the stat sheet, at least foul or something. I look to get in there and be productive to help our team.
MW: Do you ever get frustrated? Do you ever think, "Hey, I'm producing, how come I'm not playing?"
AJ: No, not really. Right now, the only thing that matters is for us to win. The season's pretty much over and all we want to do is win the game. So the time, the minutes don't really matter right now. All we need to do is win games.
MW: In the regular season, you were playing a lot. Did anyone pull you aside and say, "We're shortening the rotation"? Or do you just find out when you don't get in the game?
AJ: The coaches told all of us it didn't really matter if you played three minutes, one minutes, five seconds-- just be ready to play. It's a team effort, and we're going to need everybody in the playoffs to come out with some wins. They just said to be ready, and that's what I'm doing.