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Evaluating Anthony Johnson

This week, 3QC will take a look back on each Magic player's 2008/2009 season. Each day focuses on one position: Monday for point guards, Tuesday for shooting guards, Wednesday for small forwards, Thursday for power forwards, and Friday for centers. I'll evaluate each individual player at that position at regular intervals throughout the day, while Eddy will make a general survey of the position later in the afternoon.

Having evaluated Rafer Alston earlier, Anthony Johnson is our focus now. Jameer Nelson is up next.

Anthony Johnson
No. 8 Point Guard
Points Per Game Assists Per Game Turnovers Per Game
5.3 2.5 1.0
Points Per 36 Assists Per 36 Turnovers Per 36
10.2 4.9 2.0
PER Assist Rate Turnover Rate
10.3 21.4 16.4
FG% 3FG% FT%
40.4% 39.4% 75.3%
eFG% TS%
47.2% 50.5%

All statistics in this table from Johnson's player page at basketball-reference. Career-best statistics highlighted in gold.

What an up-and-down season for Anthony Johnson, right? Signed as the Magic's second-string point guard last summer--inexplicably for more than the veterans' minimum--Johnson figured to get a steady 15 minutes per game in relief of Jameer Nelson. With his lack of speed and high assist totals, he did not immediately endear himself to Magic fans, who were perhaps spoiled by Keyon Dooling's off-the-bench reliability last season. So when Nelson's season ended in February after a nasty injury to his right shoulder, Johnson got the call to start. And this is really where the story gets going.

A.J., at 34, isn't exactly cut out for playing long stretches of games against the NBA's best point guards. When it became apparent that the Magic's season would end in playoff disappointment if they didn't upgrade their point guard play, Otis Smith traded for Rafer Alston at the deadline. With the move, the Magic more-or-less signaled they didn't think Johnson would work as a starter. Maybe he got the last laugh. Even with Nelson's All-Star season, and with Alston's taking over in its waning months, neither played more minutes for the Magic than Johnson did this season.

They're right, and I mean no disrespect to A.J. when I say that. He quietly had a decent season boosted by a strong February in which he shot 45.9% from the field and 41.5% from three-point range. Thanks to his steadiness, and his occasional turn-back-the-clock dunk, he became a bit of a cult icon here at 3QC. He also earned a reputation--here, anyway--for going into "Gilbert Arenas Mode" whenever he made the first shot he took in a game, gunning at every subsequent opportunity. Maybe that tendency is overstated, but it sure seems to me that if he has the ball and the Magic have the last shot of the quarter or half... yeah, he's not passing.

So when Nelson made a surprising return in the NBA Finals, the Magic relegated Johnson to the end of the bench. He didn't play a single minute. At midseason, 3QC readers named him the team's most disappointing player. In June? He became a tragic figure, a victim of the organization's (panicked?) decision to bring its All-Star point guard back for a championship run. It seemed as though every Finals broadcast featured at least one close-up of Johnson on the bench, sitting still, looking a bit depressed in his warmups. Can you blame him for feeling bad? He was so excited after the Magic's series-clinching win over the Cleveland Cavaliers--in other words, the game preceding the Finals--that he wore his Eastern Conference Champions t-shirt and hat out of the locker room on his way to the car. This is a grown man wearing a t-shirt over a dress shirt and tie. All smiles. That's the second image by which I'll remember A.J.'s 2008/09 campaign. The first? That wicked dunk over Theo Ratliff in the playoffs, to which I linked earlier in this post.

We can't give him points just because we like him, though. He's still prone to the occasional bad shooting night in which he can't seem to jump-start the offense, either, and at that point he becomes basically superfluous. On the whole, he helped the Magic more than he hurt them this year, and it's difficult to expect much more than that from a career backup. With the Magic's recent decision to ship Rafer Alston to New Jersey in part of a package that netted Vince Carter, Johnson is firmly entrenched as Nelson's backup for one more season, after which his contract will expire. We're up for one more go-round with A.J. before the team decides to hand the backup job to a younger player whom they can groom. For now, the job is his. Cool?


Grade: B