As March 15th approached, fans and analysts had their focus around two players on the New Orleans Pelicans that may be on the move. Fans had their eyes on Eric Bledsoe who had been grossly underperforming in the first half of the season. Analysts focused on Lonzo Ball being moved after his father, Lavar, stated Lonzo did not want to be in New Orleans. While everyone was focused on these two guards, Executive VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin and General Manager Trajan Langdon had a different move in their arsenal.
In the final hour, news broke that the Pelicans would be trading veteran guard JJ Redick and Italian forward Nicolo Melli to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for James Johnson, Wes Iwundu, and draft compensation. Both Redick and Melli had not been reaching their potential, so the move seemed smart on the Pelicans’ end.
Shortly after, JJ Redick was on his podcast bashing the New Orleans Pelicans front office. In a conversation with his cohost, he mentioned that he told David Griffin that his wish was to be traded to a team in the Northeast to be closer to his family. After a disgruntled Redick was sent to Dallas, Griffin responded to the veteran’s statements by saying that he had been in contact with teams in the Northeast for the majority of the season, but none wanted to pursue him as aggressively as he would have liked.
Looking at teams in the northeast, the four teams that Redick was likely considering were likely the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics. All four squads are playoff teams who were not willing to spend a lot of assets for a 36-year-old guard who was struggling to make 3s, which was what he was known for.
The assets received from Dallas seemed mediocre at first, but fans of the Pelicans were happy that their team got anything at all for those two players. Little did they know the effect that one player can have on a season, and for the Pelicans that player was James Johnson.
Johnson Steps Up
Shortly after the trade deadline, the injury bug hit the New Orleans Pelicans. In a game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Pelicans found themselves without four starters and two key bench players. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams, Josh Hart, and Kira Lewis Jr. were all ruled out of the game due to various injuries.
James Johnson was thrown into the starting lineup after just joining the team, and he far outperformed any expectations set for him. According to NBA.com, the vet has played in six games for New Orleans and is averaging 12.0 points per game on 43.3% shooting and 39.1% behind the arc. In addition to his seeming lights-out shooting, Johnson is also averaging 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Even besides his on-court performance that appears in the box score, Johnson is a gritty vet who is not afraid to fight for his team. In their win against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9th, center Dwight Howard was given a flagrant one foul for a high hit to the neck of Zion Williamson as he was going up for a dunk. As Williamson was shooting his free throws, Johnson was in Howard’s ear the entire time. Known as someone who stands up for his guys, Johnson was not afraid to let Howard know that his actions were not ok.
There’s Still a Chance
The Pelicans currently find themselves in 11th in the Western Conference, just one game behind a spot in the play-in tournament. Behind Johnson’s leadership, the squad has a chance to make a real playoff push. It remains to be seen how deep into the playoffs the Pelicans can go, but the outlook seems far less grim than if they did not have James Johnson.