WALTHAM, Mass. — Amir Johnson has been able to wander his new home largely unperturbed. Even at 6 feet 9 with a fierce and recognizable beard, the Boston Celtics‘ big free-agent splurge has been able to feast at Faneuil Hall and stroll Patriots Place at Gillette Stadium before checking out an Ed Sheeran concert without drawing much fanfare. But that will probably change soon.
In Toronto, Johnson was the city’s favorite (adopted) son. He handed out free Drake albums after buying out two stores worth of CDs. He had a float in the city’s Caribana festival. He got in full makeup, learned the “Thriller” dance moves, and participated in a Zombie Walk. He even hosted an annual “I Roll With Amir” dinner party with 100 fans.
Ask one of those Raptors fans about losing Johnson and you’ll probably hear a deep, longing sigh before they respond. Toronto, with other pressing offseason needs and concerns about Johnson’s long-term durability, moved on from the fan favorite this summer. The Celtics swooped in with an aggressive midnight pursuit when free agency opened on July 1 and, by lunchtime, had hammered out a two-year, $24 million agreement.
The signing was met with a few grumbles in Boston where some fans were hoping Boston would emerge with a legitimate superstar after generating honest-to-goodness cap space for the first time in nearly two decades. The Celtics were adding to an already overstocked frontcourt that welcomed another veteran big man in David Lee soon after.
Johnson is eager to win over his new fan base. He’s ready to be a veteran leader on a young team that’s looking to take the next step in its quest to return to contender status. That’s a big part of what sold him on coming to Boston.
“I like the vision, I like that we are young, and I like what they did last season coming into the playoffs,” said the 28-year-old Johnson, a veteran of 10 NBA seasons in Detroit and Toronto. “I felt like they were doing their best to get better. Just talking to [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] and [coach Brad] Stevens, I love what they got going on here.”
Johnson has started the process of endearing himself to a new fan base by playing to his strengths early in the preseason. He has beefed up Boston’s interior defense and helps protect the rim with hustle and a high basketball IQ. He has thrived in the pick-and-roll — especially when paired with Isaiah Thomas — and can finish with an array of crafty floaters and hook shots or step out beyond the arc when defenders stray (his teammates are already giving him grief for how slowly he delivers his 3-pointers).
“He’s a good player. He can stretch the floor and shoot. He can score on the interior, he can roll, he can run,” Stevens said. “We talked about it the other day, sometimes his rim runs open up shots for other people. You saw that in the New York game [on Friday]; he ran really hard to the rim, it sucked in Avery [Bradley]’s defender and Avery made a corner 3. Those are some of the reasons why Amir’s advanced stats are a lot higher than maybe his traditional stats would suggest.”
Yes, Johnson is an advanced stats darling. While his individual stat line rarely jumps off the page, his impact is impossible to deny when examining advanced numbers. An example: In three preseason appearances this month, the Celtics own a minuscule defensive rating of 81.9 points per 100 possessions when Johnson is on the court (that’s 12 points better than the team’s already solid rating of 93.9 through four games). Go through Johnson’s entire 10-year career and you’ll see a pattern of his teams typically performing at a higher level when he’s on the court versus off.
“I followed Amir from high school throughout his NBA career and, it took him a while to get going in the NBA, but he’s just a class act. He’s a winning player,” Ainge said. “He’s not one of those guys that just fill up a stat sheet. He just helps you win. He does a little bit of everything. He can defend, he can pass, he can rebound, he can block shots, he can make a shot. He’s just a guy that’s a good complete basketball player.
“I think he’s a really good fit with our other bigs. Sometimes when Brad is trying to coach the bigs, it might not be the perfect fit and [the bigs might not] complement each other, but Amir is one of those guys that can complement each one of our guys. We’re really excited about him.”
Johnson said the way the Celtics showered him with praise and respect at the start of free agency played a big role in his decision to come here. He loves that Ainge was following him at Westchester High School in Los Angeles before Johnson was the last prep-to-pros draftee (Detroit selected him 56th overall in a 2005 draft that proved to be a loaded second round).
The Celtics targeted Johnson for his versatility, but have found immediate chemistry when he shares the court with Thomas, the February trade deadline acquisition who spearheaded Boston’s surge to the seventh seed last season.
“It’s what I do. I’m a big that likes to set screens and roll,” Johnson said. “[Thomas] just makes it easier for me, because he’s such a great ball handler that he gets the defender off him before I even set the screen. It just works. We both do our jobs great.”
Echoed Thomas: “He makes the game easy for me. He’s a player that just knows how to play. Sometimes he doesn’t even know what play we’re running, but his basketball IQ is so high, he knows what to do out there. He’s a talented basketball player, man, offensively and defensively, and he’s going to definitely help us this season.”
According to Synergy Sports data, Johnson has finished as the roll man in five pick-and-rolls with Thomas this preseason and generated 10 points (a ridiculous two points per play in a league where Boston’s 0.963 points per play overall ranks sixth in the NBA). A desire to play Johnson and Thomas together might mean Johnson has to settle for a reserve role (assuming Thomas remains in his sixth man spot). Johnson doesn’t seem worried about it, particularly with Stevens pledging to utilize Boston’s depth as a weapon.
“I’ve been on both sides in my career, coming off the bench and starting so it really doesn’t matter,” Johnson said.
What does matter to Johnson is playing hard and leading by example. He knows that Boston’s roster is filled with young impressionable players and Johnson has pledged to set the proper tone from the weight room to the practice court to game action.
But he’s also eager to immerse himself in the city of Boston. He’s still getting settled after arriving in August to find a place to live.
“The first thing I look for in a city is food. That’s what I like. It makes me happy,” Johnson said with a smile. “So I walked around. I went to, what is it called, Faneuil Hall? I was in heaven. It was just like food after food, trying every different thing, so that’s the best place I’ve been.”
There are concerns about Johnson’s ankles, which he has admitted he must allow to heal when he rolls them despite his desire to play through the pain. Johnson is also coming off a season in which his numbers — even his advanced stats — dropped off a bit while the Raptors won 49 games only to get swept out of the opening round of the playoffs.
The Celtics like what they’ve seen of Johnson so far. They believe they got a steal. You won’t see many of Johnson’s No. 90 jersey (“The ’90s were good. I was born in ’87 but the ’90s were good,” said Johnson) around the city quite yet, but give it time. Celtics fans will embrace the blue-collar work ethic of Johnson and, if he contributes to winning, he’ll have this city wrapped around his finger like he did in Toronto.