Chris McCosky of the Detroit News has noted in his last two blog posts that he and Flip Saunders are confused at the amount of attention Amir Johnson has received from fans. On Sunday he said:
Saunders, like the rest of us, is mystified at how much attention Johnson is getting, both from the media and fans. "Thirteen years ago, I had Kevin Garnett and at that time he was the first guy to come into the league from high school in like 20 years. Amir has gotten more publicity this year, a guy who's never played, than Garnett did that first year, and here's a guy who was the first high school guy in 20 years."
I think it's safe to say that Saunders is either relying on hyperbole to make a point or employing a bit of revisionist history. From the New York Times on June 29, 1995, the day after Garnett was drafted fifth overall:
Though [Joe] Smith was No. 1, no prize seemed more revered than Garnett, the 6-10 senior who attended his high school prom only three weeks ago. Less than a month ago he announced his decision to forego college, and the flurry of interest that followed was dizzying.
Much finagling and last-minute jockeying for the right to draft Garnett was taking place Tuesday night and early this morning, but the league's 2 P.M. trading deadline passed without a major deal being struck. [Isiah] Thomas of the Raptors was just one of several general managers who insisted that Garnett had more talent and ability than any of his peers.
From another NY Times article the next day:
"Garnett's got everybody going, "Whoa,' " [George] Karl said. "A lot of people say he has a Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving flair. That's strong, huh?"
Is there more interest in Amir than your average bench warmer? Definitely. Does it even approach the hysteria surrounding Garnett as a rookie? No. No, no, no. And no.
Today, McCosky again chastised fans for expecting too much:
On another issue: Let's back off of Amir Johnson for a bit, OK? I don't know what some people expect from this kid, but he's not Magic Johnson. He's not ready to be in the regular rotation and contribute 25 to 30 minutes a game. He's not going to be ready all year, is my guess. This isn't the Pistons' version of Cameron Maybin. Nobody's ever said he was the greatest prospect ever to come through the pike. He was the 56th pick in the draft, taken right out of high school. He wasn't the first overall pick. He's an extremely athletic but extremely raw kid. He is active and he can finish around the basket. He can block shots and run the floor. But other than that, he's still finding his way (on the court and off it). For now and for the foreseeable future, he's the 11th or 12th man this year getting mostly just spot minutes.
I don't think the fans want him to be the next Kevin Garnett or Magic Johnson -- just the current Amir Johnson will do, for the reasons McCosky himself laid out.
Johnson has impressed on the court nearly every chance he's had. Of his play in the D-League last year, a reporter in Sioux Falls said "every game he makes at least one play that leaves you speaking in tongues." And Mo McHone, his coach last year with the SkyForce, said "I just don’t see how he’s not putting in minutes [for Detroit]. I think he’s one of the best fullcourt big men I’ve seen play."
We know the Pistons think highly of him: last January, George David, the Pistons director of scouting, admitted that, "Amir might be the only untouchable in the league who's on the inactive roster," and Keith Langlois, the editor of Pistons.com, speculated that, "It's possible that Johnson will become the first player to whom Dumars offers a maximum contract."
And even though Johnson was drafted 56th overall in 2005, a lot of people, McCosky's co-worker Rob Parker included, think he would have been a lottery pick in last June's draft had he gone to college for two years instead:
"Johnson, just 20 years old, has to be looked at as almost a lottery pick. That's probably what he would have been had he gone to college for two years and not come to the NBA out of high school."
But it's not just what other people have said about Johnson that has gotten fans excited: it's what we've seen with our own eyes. His first NBA points came on a windmill dunk, and the first time he was given meaningful minutes as a rookie, he scored 18 points in 18 minutes without missing a single shot. And in last year's regular-season finale against Boston's ballyhooed Al Jefferson, he scored 20 with 12 boards, three steals and four blocks.
Yes, the bulk of his production has come against questionable competition in an inferior league as well as meaningless end-of-season games, but you play the games that are on the schedule, and you play the minutes that the coach gives you -- a lesson Darko Milicic never really learned while he was here. But unlike Darko (and more recently, Carlos Delfino), Johnson has never publicly complained or otherwise resented the opportunities that have come his way.
Is it strange for fans to be so excited about a kid who hasn't proven himself? Perhaps to someone in the trenches concerned about winning (or reporting) one game at a time, but from afar I think it's only natural for fans to occasionally step back and admire the big picture.
Part of what makes Johnson so intriguing as a player is because we don't know what his ceiling is, which can't be said about any of the starters. We know the veteran core is good enough to carry the team deep into the playoffs -- we've seen it happen five years in a row. But the starting lineup is also full of guys playing at their peak or slightly just past -- who's going to carry the torch next year, and the year after?
With any luck, it's going to be Johnson, and Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo (and maybe, just maybe, Cheikh Samb). But we don't know for sure, because with the exception of Maxiell, we just haven't seen those guys get extended minutes. For the rookies, that's to be expected. But for Johnson, I'd expect him to be something more than the 11th or 12th man in his third year in the league -- and it sounds like Joe Dumars does, too. In September, Johnson told the Sporting News:
"I am going to play," Johnson says. "Joe Dumars tells me constantly, 'This is your year. There will be no DNPs this year.' "
Granted, Johnson has had a few DNPs already this year, but that's because he missed almost the entire preseason with the ankle injury and opened the year with related Achilles soreness. But Dumars reiterated what Johnson's role would be on the team during a recent interview with Langlois on Pistons.com:
No – he won’t be the odd man out. He’ll get his opportunity this year. I’ve talked to him several times, Flip Saunders has talked to him several times about how much we’re going to depend on him this year. It’s an extremely long season and we wanted to make sure he didn’t get emotionally down, because with an injury like this it can take a while to get back to full strength. He had never been through this before, so we have been constantly talking to him about continuing to work hard, that we have tremendous confidence in you and your time is going to come where we’re going to put you on the court and you’re going to have to compete the way you see Maxey and Sheed and Dice are.
Now that Johnson is back (or extremely close) to full strength, we're seeing Saunders give him opportunities: he played the entire fourth quarter on Friday and saw five minutes with the starters in the second quarter on Sunday. I'm content with that, and I imagine most fans are, too, especially since his minutes will come at the expense of Maxiell, a fan-favorite in his own right.
But if Johnson is consistently given five minutes here, seven minutes there, a dozen minutes now and then, I have a hunch he'll force his way into a larger role next year, just like Maxiell did last season. All players need to earn their opportunities, but first they need to be given a chance.