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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    James Johnson, left, and Marcus Thornton celebrate Johnson's buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the New York Knicks last week.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    James Johnson began the season as a starter but is now a valuable reserve for the Kings.

Johnson gets his groove back

Published: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 - 12:22 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 - 12:28 pm

TORONTO – This was going to be a big season for James Johnson – a new team with an opportunity to play a big role.

And what happened? Johnson shot 32.6 percent in his first seven starts, and by the Kings' 10th game, he was benched.

"I was struggling – the whole team knew I was struggling," Johnson said. "If you were scouting us, you knew I was struggling. It kind of takes away from us on the offensive end if you have someone who is hesitant to shoot or doesn't want to shoot, having a bad jumper or whatever."

But Johnson's shooting has improved, and he's worked his way back into a meaningful role as a reserve for the Kings.

In his 11 starts this season, he's shooting 32.9 percent. In 20 games coming off the bench, he's making 45.7 percent of his shots.

When the Kings acquired Johnson in the offseason, the hope was that he would be the starting small forward, filling a glaring need.

"When I shared with him about being able to be a (small forward) and be a playmaker, I thought he took advantage of that over the summer and worked on that," Kings coach Keith Smart said. "Then we got into the games … it just wasn't coming together for him. I saw him struggling. I saw he was trying to figure out where he fits in the lineup, all those things."

Smart now uses Johnson (6-foot-9, 248 pounds) more often as a power forward, which the coach believes simplifies the game for Johnson. As a power forward, Johnson doesn't have to be a playmaker or score as often, and Smart said Johnson has the size and strength to defend power forwards and centers at times.

"I know sometimes when you take a perimeter player who still has the ability to be a big player, you can kind of start moving him backward," Smart said. "Because now the ball doesn't come to him too often, but when it does, it's a playmaking situation."

That's what happened Dec. 28, when the ball ended up with Johnson, who made the winning three-pointer to beat the New York Knicks.

Smart said if Johnson had been playing small forward, he would not have been in position to take the shot. Smart also likes what Johnson provides defensively.

Johnson credits Smart with helping him through his rough start.

"He's a different coach than I've had most of the time," Johnson said. "For him to talk to me, to understand what I was going through and hear me out was big, and that's good that he was able to do something like that."

Smart said communication has been the key in getting Johnson headed in the right direction.

"James is one of those guys that you've got to talk to all the time and let him know what you're doing, and when I've done that with him, he's understood," Smart said.

Johnson routinely stays after practice to take extra jump shots with guard Isaiah Thomas and assistant coach Bobby Jackson.

Johnson said Thomas has become a good friend and offers a bit of encouragement and constructive criticism.

"(Johnson is) playing with confidence," Thomas said. "He's doing the little things like defense, blocked shots, rebounding, and it's also getting him easy buckets. Whether it's dunks, layups – and he's also shooting his midrange jumper, too."

Johnson has improved his shooting percentage to 39.7, which still would be a career low.

Johnson said the early-season struggles aren't a concern anymore. And if he has a good shot – like his buzzer beater against the Knicks – he won't turn it down.

"I think I was more in a drought, and mentally it was hard to get out of it," Johnson said. " At the end of the day, I overcame it."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jason Jones



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