From Clueless to Toothless: The Meteoric Rise of Tyler Johnson
Insight // 12 months ago
By: Nykolis Currie
Tyler Matthew Johnson was never supposed to become the Toothless Terror that he is today. To understand how this undrafted 24-year old turned into this monstrosity, let’s start our diagnosis by examining his development beginning with his college years.
Coming out of high school, Johnson wasn’t some highly sought after recruit that broke the presses. He wasn’t even a top guard in his state. Johnson, who played at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Ca., ranked as the 367th best prospect in his class of 2010—with the likes of Okaro White, Shabazz Napier and some guy named Leek Leek all in front of him, according to 247Sports.
He committed and spent four years at Fresno State University. While there, he was a “late bloomer, under-the-radar kind of guy” as his college coach once said, and his stat line reflected that sentiment. Johnson averaged a modest 10.6 points for his college career. His best season came in his last one, where he earned a spot on the All-Mountain West second team as a senior averaging almost 16 points while shooting at a 47 percent clip.
Johnson shot an outstanding 43 percent from the 3-point line, as well as gathering seven boards off the glass and contributing three assists per game. Despite his strong season, he went undrafted during the 2014 NBA Draft and spent the majority of the year toiling away in the D-League before signing a 10-day contract with the Miami HEAT.
From 10-Days to $50 Million
The odds that this seemingly unremarkable shooting guard would turn into one of the premier bench scorers in the league today were little to none.
In his rookie season with the HEAT, Johnson played in 32 games before being waived and sent to the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s D-league affiliate. He played only 19 minutes per game while averaging a mediocre 5.9 points. Among all NBA rookies who played at least 30 games, he finished 19th in scoring and 120th among all NBA guards. It wasn’t a very impressive start for the man who keeps dentists awake at night.
Year Two showed more promise for Johnson as he finally got more playing time and showed intriguing improvement, especially in closing lineups. In fact, Pat Riley saw so much potential in the left-handed sophomore that he once said to Tyler’s mother, “You do understand why we traded (Mario Chalmers)? Because we believe in Tyler. I really believe that the future is with Tyler,” per NBPA.com.
He saw his minutes boost up to 24, and in 36 contests he managed to average 8.7 points on 48 percent shooting while draining 38 percent from 3. It was soon clear that the game had begun to slow down for him, and he was starting to realize the pace of the NBA. This improvement in scoring notched him up 21 spots (99th among all guards).
Now, there are those who would see these numbers and think to themselves, “This is the guy we’re going to give $18 million (after the cap hit) to?” To which I respond, “Hell yes.” In 2016-17, Johnson played in 73 games, more than double his sophomore season and he didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Averaging 13.7 points while keeping a true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent from the field, Johnson became the second-highest scorer among the 25 guards who played at least 65 games off the bench, just behind Lou Williams.
He’s quickly gone from an afterthought in the league to one of the most impressive sixth men out there.
“If you look at his past, every year he gets better and better,” HEAT guard Goran Dragic said to Bleacher Report. “He’s working hard, and he’s always open to learning new things.”
The advantage of having a reliable scoring option while the starters rest is invaluable and this year’s playoffs have shown that as well (Did someone say, “ISO Joe” Johnson?). Tyler has been firing at a much higher clip and still managed to be relatively efficient. He attacks the basket with confidence while also ducking around screens for easy points. This season, he finished in the 81st percentile among all players in scoring when coming off a screen. He also shot 51.6 percent from the field in this criteria and had an effective field goal percentage of 58.1 percent. His offensive prowess has been a revelation and is to be admired.
Grit to Great
It isn’t just his scoring that’s improved, but his ability to control the basketball, as well. Johnson’s assist-to-turnover ratio has risen from 1.40 as a rookie to 2.59, placing him as the second-best shooting guard in that category, only behind Milwaukee Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon. How’s that for data (slams pen)?
All that being said, Miami fans know that Johnson’s offense is only one layer of his versatile repertoire. His defense is almost as deadly. As a rookie, his defensive skills were well known. In that year, with Johnson as the nearest defender, opponents shot 39.9 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from 3.
To put that into perspective, when Johnson wasn’t the nearest defender, players shot 42.5 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3. This, however, is a small sample size due to the lack of games Johnson played as a rookie. But his defensive skills have translated well over the years. For the 2016-17 season, his opponents shot 43 percent from the field and 35.2 from 3.
He’s never afraid to rip the ball loose as an attacker by attempting to drive in for a layup or capitalize on any mistakes an inattentive player may make. He’s metamorphosed from a defender that offenses respected to one they fear. Now the question of the day is: Why exactly has Tyler Johnson improved so much? And to this, I answer simply: Erik. Freaking. Spoelstra.
“Sometimes Tyler will bristle when I tell him, ‘Hey, you’ve got grit,'” Spoelstra said in an interview with ESPN. “He may take that as, ‘You don’t have talent.’ But his toughness is absolutely talent.”
Johnson has clearly benefitted from Coach Spo’s trust in him. As his playing time has increased, his level of play has also increased. Johnson’s usage percentage when he first came into the league was just a moderate 16.5 percent. Nowadays, his usage percentage sits above 20 percent. He’s getting a lot more plays ran through him, which has only helped him grow as both a better playmaker and a more confident scorer. Johnson has proven he can now finish at the rim creatively (albeit at the cost of a few teeth) and is not afraid to take control of the game if he has the hot hand.
Spoelstra once called Johnson a “force of nature” and the “ultimate competitor.” After seeing what he can do when he’s unleashed, I couldn’t agree anymore. Watching him flourish on this roster will truly be an honor to watch.