Persons of Interest: New Raptors Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson

NBA insider Noah Coslov joins the Starting Lineup with guest hosts George Rusic and Steve Dangle, to discuss what Raptors fans can expect from their champs without Kawhi Leonard, and predict where they will finish in the standings.

This past weekend was a roller-coaster ride for the Toronto Raptors organization and its fans.

The team lost Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers — in dramatic fashion — and watched as Danny Green signed with the Lakers immediately afterward. But in the two days that followed, the club signed a pair of notable free agents (and former University of Arizona teammates) in 23-year-old wing Stanley Johnson and 24-year-old forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. So, hey, it all worked out in the end didn’t it?

Gutted from the loss of their best player and sole true superstar, as well as a key veteran and valued three-point weapon in Green, the Raptors head into the future with much uncertainty.

For one indication of president Masai Ujiri and the front office’s plan going forward, you can look at the signings of Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson — a pair of once highly regarded prospects and experienced young players who haven’t lived up to expectations so far in their careers, but will be given a shot to blossom under Toronto’s proven player development system.

Here’s some background on the newest Raptors, and what we can expect from each this coming season:

Pedigree and the story until now

Both highly regarded prospects coming out of Arizona — a bona fide NBA factory — expectations were clearly higher for Johnson when he declared for the draft in 2015.

Johnson had won four state titles with California high school prep powerhouse Mater Dei and the McDonald’s All-American ranked between third and sixth in the country on various scouting boards. He was also a three-time gold medal winner with Team USA and was named MVP of the FIBA U-18 America’s championship in 2014 before declaring for Arizona.

Teaming up with Hollis-Jefferson, then entering his sophomore season in 2014-15, expectations were high for the Wildcats, who ranked second in NCAA pre-season rankings and finished the campaign at No. 7.

In his lone season at Arizona, Johnson won the Julius Erving award as the nation’s top small forward.

Coming out of college after his freshman season, Johnson drew comparisons to none other than Kawhi Leonard (and Ron Artest), and the Detroit Pistons were banking on him similarly developing his raw offensive game as he matured in the league. That never happened, and looking back, the Pistons clearly shot an air-ball drafting Johnson eighth overall.

Hollis-Jefferson, who hails from Chester, Pa., was also a McDonald’s All-American in high school. His skills were on clear display during his two seasons in Arizona — he could defend, was active on the floor and showed all the defensive potential in the world. But questions surrounding his inability to shoot from distance and his positional fit at the NBA level saw him fall to 23rd overall in 2015, 15 spots below Johnson.

To this point, however, Hollis-Jefferson has had a far more successful NBA career, carving out a spot as a valuable role player for the Brooklyn Nets, while Johnson has struggled to find his footing and failed to impress after being traded from Detroit to the New Orleans Pelicans last season. Both the Nets and Pelicans elected to let them walk this summer and enter free agency.

Defensive identity

Leonard’s heroics took the Raptors over the edge, but the team won throughout the playoffs on the back of their stellar defence. In losing Leonard, the team will at least look to recoup their defensive identity, and both Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are proof of that priority.

Johnson is a potent on-ball defender who uses his six-foot-eleven wingspan to clamp down on opponents. In the one season in which he earned starter’s minutes — over 27 per game while starting 50 games for the Detroit Pistons in 2017-18 — Johnson averaged 1.4 steals per game and has put up 1.6 steals per 36-minutes over his four-year career.

Here’s Johnson early last season with Detroit, giving Leonard trouble on defence down the stretch of a game the Pistons eventually won at the buzzer:

Hollis-Jefferson stands out even more on the defensive end thanks to the high-flying swats that make up a good chunk of his highlight reel:

He has the potential to be a game-changer on the defensive end and could remind Raptor fans of James Johnson for the way he uses his size and athleticism to drive to the rim but, like Johnson, one major area of weakness could dictate how much trust and minutes Toronto coach Nick Nurse gives to his newest forwards. Speaking of…

Shooting Woes

Last season, Green was second in the NBA in three-point shooting at 45.5 per cent from beyond the arc. Leonard is a 41 per cent three-point shooter in the playoffs during his career, and last season was a top-50 player in terms of effective field goal percentage.

Their loss removes two of the better shooters from the Raptors’ 2019 title team. The Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson signings certainly do nothing to address that issue.

Simply put, both newcomers are among the worst shooters in the NBA. Hollis-Jefferson is a non-factor from deep — last season he shot just 18 per cent from three-point land, albeit on just 0.8 attempts per game.

Raptors will be pushing Hollis-Jefferson to spend many more days like this over the course of the summer. After all, if it weren’t for his poor shooting, he’d be an ideal small-ball/modern day four in the NBA.

Nobody will expect him to become a long-range gunner overnight — or perhaps at all — but if he can at least become a near-respectable shooter from the corners, like Pascal Siakam eventually did, it will go a long way to maximizing his impact on the floor.

Johnson was much more willing to let it fly and his spot on the wing almost necessitates it these days. But the 23-year-old shot an unreliable 28.8 per cent from beyond the arc, showing only incremental improvements in the 18 games he appeared with New Orleans to close the season. Of the 164 players who attempted 3.2 three-pointers per game or more last season, Johnson ranked 163rd.

He’s never been an impact player offensively, and even during his highest-usage season two years ago, he averaged under nine points per game. But, hey, he once dropped 86 points in a summer exhibition game in Toronto, so there’s that…

Both players are low-risk pickups who still have a good amount of upside. Both also figure to be legitimate rotation pieces next season, with, for my money, Hollis-Jefferson standing a greater chance in making an impact for the Raptors. Let the new era begin.

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