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On Amir Johnson’s fouls (again)

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A. Sherrod Blakley touches upon Amir Johnson's chances to be a starter this year, and he brings up a common criticism of Johnson's game:

While appearing in a career-high 62 games last season, Johnson averaged 8.9 fouls per 48 minutes played. Only Atlanta rookie Mario West (10.9) averaged more fouls per 48 minutes among NBA players who appeared in as many games as Johnson.

"A lot of it is game experience," Curry said when asked about Johnson's persistent foul trouble. "Amir came straight from high school. He didn't get a lot of time the first couple years. The only (playing time) he got was in the Developmental League. He really doesn't have a lot of game experience."

I agree with Michael Curry, but I'll add that I think it's more than just inexperience -- I think a big factor has been Johnson knowing that no matter how well (or poorly) he played, he probably wasn't going to play long enough to foul out. (I know, I know; I've made variations of this argument several times in the past, but it's worth repeating now that Johnson has emerged as the pre-camp favorite to start ...)

Yes, Johnson averaged 8.9 fouls per 48 minutes, but in 70 games (62 in the regular season, eight in the playoffs), but do you know how many games he actually finished with more than four fouls? Seven. Do you know how many he finished with no more than two fouls? 44.

Johnson (like everybody else in the arena) knew his playing time was going to be limited, so when he did get in the game he admitted to being extremely eager trying to make something happen on defense. He's a prolific shot-blocker, so it's natural to think a lot of his fouls came from being too aggressive going for the block. As I saw it, though, that wasn't the case; he seemed to get in the most trouble with silly reach-in fouls on the perimeter. That's something he can avoid with regular playing time as he calms down a bit and gets into a rhythm instead of trying to impress the coaches with every step on the floor.

But don't take my word for it, consider the career of another big man who made the jump directly from high school. In 1998-99, Jermaine O'Neal's third year in the NBA, he averaged 6.3 fouls per 48 and 8.9 minutes per game for the Trail Blazers. The following season, O'Neal averaged 7.1 fouls per 48 and 12.3 minutes per game. Finally, in 2000-01, O'Neal's fifth year, after being traded to Pacers and finally given a chance at real minutes, he averaged 5.1 fouls per 48 and 32.6 minutes per game.

Was O'Neal's fouls the reason he didn't play in Portland? Of course not; ironically enough, it was because he was behind Rasheed Wallace. But once he got the opportunity, talent took over. I see no reason for hand-wringing that Johnson's tendency to foul won't solve itself once he gets a real honest-to-goodness chance to play on a regular basis, whether that's starting or coming off the bench.