Undrafted. Summer League. Waived. D-League bound. On a 10-day contract. Back to the D-League. Another 10-day contract. And finally, Johnson lands a two-year deal with the Heat. After spots of excellence, filling in through Wade’s injuries in 2015, a broken jaw in last year’s Summer League, and a shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the latter half of last season, Tyler Johnson has arrived. His last two years can be summed up perfectly with a six-letter word: battle.
Despite signing a $50 million dollar contract this July, the fight’s not up. A battle is exactly what the Heat need out of Johnson. The fighter is Miami’s X-factor. And if the past is any indicator, he’ll be a perfect complement to the young bigs and perfect sparring partner in practice for Josh Richardson.
While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are the most important players for the Heat’s win total this year, they’re not the players Pat Riley was referencing when speaking about the opportunity “to mine one or two jewels… now (that) they’re not encumbered.”
Unlike shades of Miami’s past where D-Wade grew up in the midst of established veterans like Eddie Jones, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant, Miami is loaded with youth and unfilled starters minutes up for the taking. As Riley said, “We love Hassan, we love Josh, and Justice and Tyler and a lot of other young players.”
Their highest upside rookies however, Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson were not the ones signed to fill the Dwayne Wade sized crater left in Miami–although one could make the case that Richardson can play positions 1-3 considering his impressive advanced metrics (2.5 Win Shares) and a sweet stroke that found net on 46 percent from beyond the arc last year.
This flexibility just adds to the potential Richardson infuses in lineups, rather than subtracting minutes from those who play one of his alternate positions. And the small forward is an infinitely more valuable position to fill than guard in today’s NBA.
A forward who can switch onto guards, blanket opponents around the three-point line, and spread the floor on offense is a trademark of contenders. That said, Tyler Johnson is the perfect partner to Richardson, both in the starting lineup and in practice. The smaller Johnson is quicker, can’t be left open on the perimeter (38 percent from 3), and has his best games when taking the ball to the rack and getting to the free throw line. Coupled with Richardson’s already stellar perimeter defense, tough interior D, and sweet shooting, it’s not hard to imagine the two hugely benefiting from facing off before and after games. These guys are the yin and the yang, fire and ice; they could easily be one of the premier 3-and-D duos in the NBA.
Now you might be asking yourself: Tyler Johnson, really? An undrafted third-year player who averaged what? …nine points, three boards, and two dimes last year. Well, if I could retort…I’d say, he did it efficiently. And he did it at the league’s weakest position. The NBA has never been more shallow at the 2. And the proof is in the pudding. Just look what Wade did for them. D-Wade’s presence at shooting guard, a position often-forgotten in haze of NBA’s past, was oftentimes, the driver, the reason post-Big 3 Heat teams locked up playoff spots early and made deep post-season runs. With Josh Richardson at the 3, Johnson could fill the second of the NBA’s most scarce positions, setting the stage for the Heat’s future.
Significantly, it’s not just minutes that the new-look Heat will have plenty of to go around. Wade’s 16 shots per game and 31.6 Usage Percentage are up for grabs in Miami. And you better believe that Goran Dragic isn’t going to be the only one who profits. Rolling out a lineup of Dragic, Johnson, Richardson, Winslow, and Whiteside as starters, Miami might even be pushing for the eighth seed come March.
And if the Richardson-Johnson duo continues to develop, I’d expect Miami to be competing with the Celtics for a top spot in the East in 2018. For a best case scenario comparison, this author believes Tyler Johnson could be better than Evan Fournier. Worst case scenario I see Johnson playing into a Jodie Meeks-type role. A starter on a bad team, but a consistent shooter for his squad.
Either way, his contract looks like a great deal for Miami (in the post-Conley $150 million contract NBA). With bird rights on Richardson and Winslow and Whiteside re-signed, their books are in order. Surprisingly, Riley could have done much worse this offseason. Even if he should have handled things better with Wade and Chris Bosh, there’s no denying the Heat are better off being able to give their young guys a lot of minutes while maintaining cap flexibility.
Still, Miami paid $50 million dollars for a reason, and it wasn’t just a 38 percent 3-point shot or more minutes for the youth. They made an investment in a certain kind of player. A hardened young combo guard with skills to complement one of their pillars of potential (Richardson). Tyler Johnson doesn’t even need to reach his ceiling to make Miami’s investment worth it. And ultimately, this is what makes him the X-factor in South Beach.
His drive on and off the court are whats essential to Miami’s bottom line. The lack of entitlement just adds allure to his game. A player with more metal in his jaw than a Beretta. A player that wasn’t embarrassed to tweet how much lunch he lost on the sidewalk after finding out about his $50 million-dollar contract. Next to three stud second round draft picks (Dragic, Richardson, Whiteside) and Justice Winslow, Johnson highlights the raw tone South Beach is bringing to the league.