The epic post I planned about Amir Johnson's "breakout" game was delayed and nearly derailed -- I've had difficulty tearing myself away from CNN following today's tragedy at Virginia Tech. I hope no one in the DBB community of readers has been directly affected by these senseless acts of violence. I'm guessing some of you came here looking for a distraction, so I'll do my best to oblige ...
If there was any doubt about Detroit's intentions over these last few games, let Sunday's game serve as clarification: the one and only goal between now and the start of the playoffs is to preserve the health of the starters while examining the potential of the bench.
And by bench, of course, I mean Amir Johnson.
We already know what guys like Carlos Delfino and Jason Maxiell can do, and as such their place in the rotation is as secure as it's ever going to be. They're getting their share of well-deserved playing time these last few games, as well, but it's Johnson who was the first off the bench on Sunday, and Johnson who led the team with 35 minutes.
How did he handle all of the attention? By turning in the first double-double of his career, collecting 12 points and 10 rebounds. He only hit 3-12 shots and had a couple of attempts rejected in the early going, but honestly, I'm just excited that he felt comfortable enough to keep jacking them up.
In time, you'd like to see better shot selection, but that can be acquired with experience. First and foremost, I want to see high level of confidence and assertiveness, and he had it. Yes, he had five fouls, but he also had six blocks. Yes, he shot just 3-12 from the field, but also got to the free-throw line seven times (converting six).
I don't want a timid Amir Johnson, I want a cocky Amir Johnson, a guy with a chip on his shoulder who wants to make up for lost time on the bench this year. I want to see the guy who terrorized the D-League with his out-of-this-world leaping ability and athleticism, the guy who people are saying would have been a lottery pick this year had he gone to college. He'll figure out to integrate his skills into the flow of the offense later, right now, I just want those skills on display.
Some people might think I'm getting too excited about one player who's yet to prove that he actually belongs in an NBA rotation. And if you're one of those people, welcome to the site, you're probably new around here. But I honestly believe that watching Amir play these last few games is like watching history being made.
Am I already predicting he'll be a star? No, but I do think it's possible. What I am predicting is that he's forcing his way into Detroit's plans, if not in the playoffs this year than certainly as a regular member of the rotation next year. He's going to draw league-wide interest as a restricted free agent this summer, and Detroit will have to pony up more dough that I think most fans realize to retain him. (And they will retain him. I refuse to acknowledge any other scenario at this time.)
I'm happy to report that Amir-mania has caught on beyond metro Detroit -- it's also captured the hearts and minds of FreeDarko:
Enthusiasm, honesty, and work ethic. . . all from a guy who plays like an unbridled cartoon. He was to go down in history as the last high school player ever drafted into the National Basketball Association, and likely a melancholy footnote. But he promptly grew two inches, blossoming into a 6'11" bundle of small forward-ish-ness. And if Darko's legacy is this the mixed blessing that fuels this site, Johnson stands to set things right—for the Pistons, and for us.
Darko Milicic was a mistake (though not one I regret -- hard to argue with a ring). Under Joe Dumars, the Pistons have flopped time and again in the lottery: Mateen Cleaves, Rodney White, Darko. But give Dumars a low first-round pick, or better yet, an under-appreciated second-rounder, and he makes magic: Memo Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell, Carlos Delfino, and now, Amir Johnson. The lottery is for losers (literally). Real GMs show their stones late in the draft.
Since this ostensibly was supposed to be a recap of the Sixers game, I'll now point you to the box score, as well as some other more recap-ish articles from elsewhere:
76ers 102, Pistons 91 box score
Amir Johnson sets career highs in Pistons loss & Another Guaransheed [Need4Sheed]
Pistons Coast to Loss [Detroit News]
Pistons lolleygag and lose to Sixers [Detroit Free Press]