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Lewenberg: Johnson gets second chance with Raptors

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Josh Lewenberg
7/10/2014 7:28:45 PM
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TORONTO - Second chances are rare in life, let alone in the NBA.

The Raptors are confident that newly re-acquired forward James Johnson will take advantage of his.

In a surprising roster move early Thursday morning, Toronto finalized an agreement to bring back the 27-year-old free agent at a reported $5 million, fully guaranteed, over the next two years.

Toronto first acquired Johnson from the Bulls in exchange for a first-round pick (which was used on Heat point guard Norris Cole) during the 2010-11 season. The following campaign was a turbulent one for Johnson as he butted heads with new head coach Dwane Casey over his role in the team's offence, ultimately leading to a late-season benching.

That summer, the Raptors flipped Johnson to Sacramento for a second-rounder (used on UConn product DeAndre Daniels last month). He played briefly for the Kings and spent the start of the 2013-14 campaign in the D-League before joining the Memphis Grizzlies and reviving his career, averaging 7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds in 52 contests last season.

Now, with a winning environment in place and a need at the small forward position, one that Johnson addresses, Casey and the Raptors have put the past behind them, believing the five-year vet will do the same.

Having met with Casey, the Raptors are convinced Johnson has matured and recognizes the importance of this opportunity. It could be his last shot.

"The number one thing with James, and we've had long discussions about that, is his role," Casey told reporters in Las Vegas, where his team is practicing ahead of their upcoming Summer League tournament. "He understands that now, which is great. In this business, there's never a person who you'll say, 'Hey, I'll never coach that guy [again].'"

"He's had his issues in the past," general manager Masai Ujiri reiterated, "but haven't we all? We will help him get over them and this is a good opportunity for him. He has to take advantage of it."

Newly re-signed point guard Kyle Lowry is a good example of what one can accomplish given the chance to redeem themselves. Lowry clashed with Casey over playing time and philosophy during his subpar first season with Toronto before breaking out in a more defined role last year.

"I think he's grown up," Lowry said of Johnson Thursday morning. "You get to the certain point, even myself, you get a maturity level that, it comes with age. I think he's going to be able to understand, listen, I'm a lot older, I'm more understanding of life and coach isn't going to make me this or make me that. At the end of the day, you're playing for the players, your teammates and the organization. I think coaching him will be fine. They will get along well."

Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a good friend of Johnson, were advocates of bringing him on board. Johnson - a big, versatile, defensive-minded forward - is the type of player the Raptors had been clamouring for and could alleviate some of the pressure from DeRozan and Terrence Ross, who were exposed by Joe Johnson and the Nets' wings during their first-round playoff loss.

Johnson, as you may recall, is a second-degree black belt, undefeated in seven MMA fights and 20 kickboxing matches. With a 6-foot-9, 245-pound frame, he's sure to strike fear in the eyes of the league's top perimeter players, assuming he buys into his role as a defensive stopper.

When Dave Joerger, Johnson's former coach in Memphis, was asked about the forward's reputation for occasionally trying to do too much on the offensive end, he joked, "I just let him do too much."

"I just say, 'Go, wreck it'," Joerger had told TSN.ca back in December. "I think he's changed his body. I think that he's able to sidestep guys, he's able to get by guys with his first and second step and then gather and finish around the rim, where I think maybe earlier in his career - carrying a little bit more weight - he wouldn't get past the first defender. I just think he's a lot quicker."

The Wake Forest product appeared in 87 games as a Raptor, starting 51, over parts of two seasons, averaging 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.

James Johnson (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images)
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