It didn’t necessarily work, but there’s a reason Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders went with forward James Johnson late in Monday’s loss to Toronto. He has played well in his first two games in Minnesota — on both ends of the floor — but the veteran forward also adds an extra element.
“James gives you an element of confidence out there,” Saunders said. “Not just because of his third-degree black-belt status, but you do get a sense of confidence from him. From the way he communicates and the toughness about him.”
Saunders pointed to a possession Monday in which Johnson was matched up with Raptors all-star forward Pascal Siakam. Siakam tried to isolate against Johnson. Bad idea. The 6-foot-8 big man blocked his shot, and Toronto took a shot clock violation.
“And James’ reaction, basically, was ‘Not on me,’ ” Saunders said.
That’s the type of tone Minnesota needs from its veteran — yes, that’s a singular term for the Wolves. At 32 years old, Johnson is easily the oldest player on the Wolves roster. Second oldest, not counting Evan Turner, who isn’t with the team, is 27-year-old Allen Crabbe.
When Johnson entered the Wolves’ locker room after he was first traded to Minnesota, he was immediately referred to as the “OG” — the original. That was weird for the forward, who grew up in the league with teammates like Udonis Haslem being his mentor in Miami.
That is now his role.
It’s not his first crack at it. He was given the opportunity to do something similar in Miami, noting he “messed up.”
“And I’m happy to get another shot at it,” Johnson said. “Just help lead, help coach, you know, what I know. Not help the coach coach, but help coach the locker room. Help coach fourth quarters. Keeping the bench sharp, you know? Trying to build… I don’t want to say habits, the guys here, like KAT, they already have something. But just add to it. Let ’em know we have his back.”
He’s done plenty of that through two games. Jordan McLaughlin said Johnson talked to the team prior to Saturday’s game against the Clippers, saying they needed to go out and play hard, play together. During games, Johnson repeatedly belts out calls on the defensive end.
On offense, Johnson has provided Minnesota with an added element it can use to make things tougher on opposing defenses. Johnson has flashed the ability to shoot from deep, as well as create for others. He’s even comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter.
Saunders noted he flipped through his old pregame scouting reports of Miami from past years. Johnson’s name was all over them.