Similar to Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge spent the 2013-14 campaign shuffling minimum-salary players in and out of the team's facilities and on and off of Brad Stevens' bench. The Celtics initially brought former Team WHOP member and Marquette guard Vander Blue to the TD Garden on a 10-day contract. Boston then worked out Roddy Beaubois in February before signing Chris Babb to a 10-day of his own — and later for the remainder of the season. In total, the Celtics had 17 players count against their cap last winter. And with Rajon Rondo missing the majority of the season, new Sixer Chris Johnson, by default, was one of Boston's best players by year's end.
"Chris is one of the hardest workers in the NBA," A Celtics executive told Liberty Ballers. "His activity and hustle are top level. He has become a solid three point shooter and defender. He needs to work on his ball handling."
Boston was forced to waive Johnson and Babb after trading Keith Bogans to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Erik Murphy, John Lucas III, Malcolm Thomas and Dwight Powell last Thursday. The Celtics organization saw value in Johnson, but with 23 players on the roster just days before the start of training camp — where NBA teams can only hold a maximum of 20 players — the team waived its two players on non-guaranteed deals.
Johnson, along with Phil Pressey, emerged as one of Boston's vocal leaders during Summer League in Orlando this July.
"I like Chris Johnson a lot," Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga, who served as the team's Summer League coach, told reporters in Orlando. "I think he plays as hard as any player that I've ever been around and he's very unselfish. He's someone that we know can make shots, he's made shots in big-time NBA environments. Whether he makes shots or not, he's going to give 100 percent effort and that's what we love about him."
Johnson, a third-year swingman from the University of Dayton, began last season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, averaging 19.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 2.5 APG in 20 games while shooting 47.0 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from beyond the arc before signing a 10-day deal with Boston on January 16. The Celtics signed Johnson to a second 10-day before inking him for the remainder of the season on February 7. In 40 games with the Celtics, the 6'6 forward averaged 6.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in 19.7 minutes per night.
"The guy plays above the rim and he hustles like I've never seen. He never gives up on a play," Celtics rookie point guard Marcus Smart said of Johnson in Orlando. "He does that every night, he's been doing that ever since summer league. He's done it in practice. That's who he is and that's why he's on the team."
Johnson is capable of knocking down shots, although he only converted from three-point land at a below-league-average 33.9 percent last season. And still just 24 years old, Johnson's shown flashes of growing into a sharpshooter rather than just a serviceable outside shooter. Besides, he'll be joining a Sixers squad that was dead-last in the NBA last season in three-point shooting at 31.2 percent. Yes, it was surprisingly even that high.
Defensively, Johnson, who plays with a motor Boston media folk say rivals that of Thaddeus Young, will fit right into Brett Brown's scheme. He's also a prototypical Sam Hinkie wing: At the 2012 Portsmouth Invitational prior to the NBA Draft, Johnson's wingspan measure in at 6'11, offering plenty of defensive versatility.
The greatest contribution Johnson will bring to Philadelphia, however: challenging rookie small forward K.J. McDaniels. While he fell into the second round, numerous NBA scouts, executives and media members have told Liberty Ballers they projected McDaniels to be a longterm starter in the NBA. He's a defensive freak who led the ACC in blocks at 2.8 per game last season at Johnson's same height. Yet, true to most of Hinkie's draft selections at this point in his tenure in Philly, McDaniels is extremely raw on the offensive end.
Johnson's established ability to contribute offensively at the NBA level will certainly give McDaniels a run for his money. Let's not be silly: McDaniels has far greater an upside than Johnson. But don't be surprised if Chris Johnson starts at small forward for the Sixers in their preseason debut against his old team on October 6. This guy has a chance to become an NBA veteran and stick in this league.