With two summer league games — and two victories — in the books for the Utah Jazz, it is more than understandable that Rodney Hood and Dante Exum have received most of the attention and praise. They are prized second-year players whose progress and growth the Jazz faithful have been eager to see. For both, the initial results are certainly encouraging, Exum’s injury notwithstanding.
Beyond that, several others have looked good. Perhaps the most impressive has been guard Chris Johnson, a player some have looked past. Then again, after a nomadic start to his NBA career, Johnson is probably used to that.
If early indications are correct, the cagey guard is doing what he can to make his case for another spot on the Jazz roster.
When Johnson was inked to a 10-day contract back in January, few thought much of it. After all, he was part of Dennis Lindsey’s thorough and exhaustive process of getting a look a number of players in whom the organization had interest. Furthermore, little was known about Johnson1.
He played fairly well during that first 10-day deal, but was not brought back for a second for several weeks. Johnson did enough to warrant the Jazz signing him for the remainder of the season, and due to injuries and late-season lineup experimentation, he was given an opportunity to show what he could do and performed solidly.
In 12 games, Johnson put up 6.8 PPG, while shooting quite well (48 percent from the floor and 34 percent on 3-pointers). He also contributed with some good defensive energy, chipping in 1.0 SPG and a 3.0 STL%2. His play was inconsistent, but that is natural for players in similar situations.
Despite putting in a good effort, Johnson has remained an afterthought for some of the armchair GMs pondering the end-of-the-roster make-up for the 2015-2016 Jazz squad. Bryce Cotton’s exciting play at the end of the season, Jack Cooley’s all-out hustle and Elijah Millsap’s elite defense all have fans buzzing more than Johnson’s heady play. Additionally, the wing position might be Utah’s strongest, making him a bit less of a priority.
But it is clear that Jazz brass like him. They would not have inked him when they did if they did not. The move enabled them to have him work out in Salt Lake City3 this summer and participate in summer league and, in all likelihood, training camp. They also maintain his rights for a few seasons with a low financial commitment, which could be a boon should he prove to be a guy who can contribute consistently.
What does he bring? In a wonderful case of small sample size theater, Johnson’s shot looks better. The release is quicker and he displays confidence when shooting from the perimeter. Any assistance from long range the Jazz can receive is welcomed. Johnson has shown the ability to take the ball to the hoop, modestly creating his own offense, and he makes his free throws when he gets to the line. Johnson also has defensive potential — with a 6’11 wingspan and good anticipation skills, he plays the passing lanes well. Johnson also has solid strength, which allows him to body up on his opponents. Above all, he gives excellent effort on the court. It is clear that he has worked hard the past three months to improve his game.
Johnson also has areas that could be improved. His ball-handling skills are so-so, and in his stint with the Jazz thus far, he has not shown too much in terms of passing the ball. In some ways, his game is more that of a small forward’s, though in a shooting guard-sized body. He needs to become more of a reliable threat from outside over a larger sample, as evidenced by his up-and-down career.
Johnson will continue to get the chance to further make his case with the Las Vegas Summer League and his work in the months leading to training camp. There is a heavy dose of reality at play — Utah has a lot of players it likes, with limited roster spots. With the likelihood of Raul Neto and Tibor Pleiss coming over becoming stronger and stronger, that would fill two of those vacancies.
Even so, Johnson is showing well. He plays with a quiet demeanor that the Jazz have long admired in their players. He will certainly be in the mix this fall.