Even the most casual of NBA fans keep up with the big names in the league. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Kevin Durant’s Twitter accounts — you know, the superstars. Most sports fans know what these guys are up to. Tobacco Road is the Mecca of college hoops; UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest all have a new batch of exciting young rookies entering the league.
However, what about the in between players? The guys that have spent a few years in the NBA — some of which are on their second or third contracts? Well, I’m here to catch you up-to-date on what some of those former favorites are up to.
James Johnson, Miami Heat
Contract: Year 1 of a 4-year, $60 million deal (final year is a club option)
James Johnson is one of the most recent — and well-compensated — beneficiaries of the Miami Heat culture. After bouncing around the league for seven seasons on a handful on teams, Johnson — who is already comically athletic — dropped 40 pounds, and was a key part of Miami’s amazing second half to the 2016-17 season.
Erik Spolestra utilized Johnson as a do-everything, positionless freak off the bench for the Heat; he revealed in the role. Johnson shot a career best 34 percent on three-pointers, including hitting 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples.
Miami went 30-11 over its final 41 games — narrowly missing the playoffs. Over that stretch, the Heat outscored its opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor. They allowed under 1.02 points per possession in those minutes; that’s the rate of a top 3 defense in the league. The Wake Forest product is one of those rare players that can guard basically every position.
Johnson became a matchup nightmare for opponents — running pick-and-rolls for Miami’s kickass second units that blitzed opponents. JJ averaged 4.8 assists per 36 minutes — good for third on the team.
The 6-foot-9 black belt shot a ridiculous 50.8 percent in the paint (non-restricted area), too. That’s normally a dead zone for most players, but Johnson thrived.
All together the performance earned him a lot of money at an advanced age; that club option could be pivotal for the Heat in three years. Miami will have to cross that bridge down the road, though.
In the mean time, the Heat spent big on Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, and Josh Richardson this offseason. Will it get them back to the playoffs? For that to happen, Johnson needs to ball out again.
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Contract: Year 4 of his 4-year rookie deal — set to make $2.4 million, hit RFA July 2018
Rodney Hood was one of those dudes who you saw play college ball and thought, “Man, that guy can play in the NBA.” The smooth-shooting lefty could do a little bit of everything while at Duke, it seemed.
Hood has flashed some serious individual scoring skills in his young career, but he’s been snakebitten with injuries, too. However, with Gordon Hayward (get better soon, please) now in Boston, Utah needs Hood to stay on the floor, and flourish as more than a secondary creator/option.
The former Blue Devils shot a career best 37.2 percent on threes; he splashed nearly 42 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys, too, which is sizzling. Hood is great from the corners — 45.6 percent on corner 3s.
But on a holistic level, his shooting declined; Hood’s true shooting rate dropped to 52.2 percent after his breakout sophomore season. Hood struggled closer to the hoop, though. After shooting 53 percent inside eight feet in 2015-16 (58 percent in the restricted area), that dropped to 45 percent in 2016-17 (55 percent in the restricted area).
The lefty has the tools to see an increase to his scoring in Utah’s militaristic, side-to-side attack. Hood just needs to be stronger and more confident around the basket.
The Jazz will still be an elite defensive unit this season; with Rudy Gobert manning the middle, this team is a lock to be a top 5 defense. The offense, however, could have issues. That will happen when you lose a player of Hayward’s caliber.
Quinn Synder is a whiz at drawing up all kinds of cool actions, but without Hayward, it could be tricky. There’s an opportunity for Hood, who didn’t land an extension before the start of the season, to relaunch his career. Playing next to Ricky Rubio should help him score more efficiency, too.
TJ Warren, Phoenix Suns
Contract: Year 4 of his 4-year rookie deal — set to make $3.1 million, 4-year, $50 million rookie extension starts with the 2018-19 season
In an era of NBA roster construction that emphasizes three-point shooting, TJ Warren zigs where other zags. Warren has flashed the ability to hit the occasional corner three, but for the most part, the former ACC Player of the Year still operates in the NBA like he did at NC State.
According to Basketball Reference, Warren was one of only 14 players in the NBA, 6-8 or shorter, to have less than 15 percent of his field goal attempts come from beyond the arc. That makes him unplayable or less valuable in the eyes of some; with the right roster, though, it could absolutely work. This, however, is what caused some eye raising over the 4-year, $50 million extension.
Warren is yet to play in a meaningful game — as the Suns have been tanking for roughly two-thirds of his time in the desert. However, as we’d expect: Warren continues to get buckets in all 10 dimensions. TJ shot 63 percent in transition, scored 1.25 points per possession — No. 7 in the NBA (min. 200 possessions). That’s right between Giannis (1.28) and LeBron (1.25).
Warren shot 71.2 FG% in the restricted area last season, which is nasty — he's alway been a beast around the hoop. https://t.co/iBpREMHayK
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) September 26, 2017
On one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA, Warren remains a nifty cutter — a movement he has to master while he lacks on threes. Phoenix doesn’t play with pristine spacing, but Warren scored 1.43 points per possession on cuts last season (71 FG%), which was good for 14th in the NBA (min. 60 poss).
The floater game is as strong as ever, too:
Warren’s three-point shooting dipped badly in 2016-17, but he shot 41 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in 2015-16 (45 3P% from corners). If he can get back up there, then that opens up so much else that he does well — avenues for cuts, hard closeouts that allow him to attack and launch that floater.
Phoenix will be awful, maybe the worst team in the league. But TJ will get buckets and be wildly fun to watch — it’s what he does.
Raymond Felton, Oklahoma City Thunder
Contract: 1-year, $2.3 million — veteran minimum
I was hopeful that the Charlotte Hornets would snag Raymond Felton in free agency this summer; he would’ve been a solid backup to Kemba Walker. The Hornets decided to go with Michael Carter-Williams instead — choosing length over a savvy veteran.
Felton, who was scooped up by the Thunder, will be an instant improvement at backup point guard for OKC over last season’s pu pu platter. This team won’t crater when Russell Westbrook hits the bench, like he did a season ago. Of course, it will help that the Thunder can stagger minutes, and let Paul George and Carmelo Anthony cook against opposing second units.
The UNC product has been around for over a decade in the league — no small feat. But he can still run a pick-and-roll. Raymond Felton shot 60 percent in the restricted area, and swished a cool 57 percent of his corner threes (16-of-28), per NBA data.