It’s been my experience in a 28-year career of watching basketball that the impact of a new player – or that of a recent departure – is generally pretty easy to recognize.
The guy that jumps to mind as a great example is Shaq. Maybe because of his incredible physical size, perhaps because of his frequent changes of scenery, but he’s my go-to-guy for this.
It starts in Orlando, where he took a moribund franchise to the NBA Finals before leaving for equally warm climes on the West Coast. Then in LA, he led his team to three championships. In Miami, he helped Dwyane Wade claim his ring. In Phoenix, well, Phoenix kinda torches the whole thing. But to be fair, it was an ill-conceived idea in the first place.
My point is simply this: in a sport where only five members of each team are on the court at any given time, it is readily apparent when a new addition is thrown into the mix and he completely changes what’s happening.
I don’t want to go too far or be too effusive in my praise for the Bakersfield Jam’s newly acquired Trey Johnson (newly acquired this year, though he previously played with the Jam in both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons). I especially don’t want to do that at the cost of disregarding the impressive play of Trey’s fellow newcomer, Alade Aminu, who is leading the Jam in scoring over his five games with the team and has provided a much-needed post presence.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I think it’s safe to tell you that Trey Johnson is blowing my mind. I knew when the Jam acquired him that the team was bringing in a guy who led the team in scoring the previous year and who shoots the ball pretty well, if nothing else. I also knew he’d received an NBA call-up last year and had played with my hometown Chicago Bulls in the preseason, so it’s not as though I thought he was chopped liver, as my Nana might say.
Needless to say given the Jam’s 4-1 record since his and Aminu’s arrival, Trey’s contributions have been greater than I expected. Statistically speaking, the Jam got far more of a point guard than I had expected, though admittedly his 9.6 assists per game average is largely a product of his 20-assist performance in his second game with the team.
But wait a second – let’s examine that last phrase: his 20 assist performance in his second game with the team. For a guy known primarily as a scorer (4.5 assists last year, never more than 2.6 at Jackson State) who can’t have known much about the Jam’s offensive sets (which are, I assure you, as involved as any team in the D-League), a 20 assist game – with only two turnovers, by the way – is no small feat. Furthermore he dropped 6, 7, 7 and 8 dimes in his other four games, all still well above his career averages.
It’s also worth mentioning that Trey scored 20 points in that game and hit a tough mid-range jump shot at the buzzer to give the Jam a hard-fought and much-needed victory over an impressive (albeit depleted by call-ups) Rio Grande Valley team. His all-around performance in that game was clear indication that he brings something special to the table.
What exactly that something special is might be slightly harder to define, but I will say this: he shares a particular (though unquantifiable) quality with most of the NBA call-ups that I have seen visit the Jam.
To wit, he appears almost invariably calm and controlled.
The other player on the Jam who I might describe that way is Reece Gaines, who most will remember as a college superstar at Louisville and a lottery pick. He is also by far the most practiced professional on the team in terms of playing experience.
Trey’s controlled style is more impressive though, because he also possesses (and frequently utilizes) explosive athleticism and quickness. In a league with plenty of those natural abilities and rather less self-control and calm, this combination is especially impressive.
I think these qualities are a major factor in allowing him to serve so well as a facilitator in his latest stretch with the Jam. He appears to see the floor better than most others, and one might assume based on his personal pace that the game has slowed down for him as analysts are so fond of saying.
On a more macro level, it appears that his confidence has allowed him to take a superstar-ish approach to the game. What I mean by this is that Trey – like, say, a Kobe Bryant – comes into the game with a mindset to watch how things are playing out and pick his spots.
If opportunities to serve as a facilitator present themselves, he takes them; if scoring chances appear, he scores. This is incredibly valuable for a Jam team that has lost games this season for every conceivable reason: poor ball movement, bad shooting, inability to defend (something else Trey helps with), etc., etc.
Not to bag on the Jam, but the team tends to need something different every night. The fact that Trey appears capable of determining what that is and then providing it may be the single biggest reason that the Jam have a season-high four game winning streak running right now.
Obviously the Jam are out of playoff contention, so the upshot of the streak is approximately zero. Equally obviously, a four-game winning streak including two wins over the Springfield Armor is nothing to throw a party about. But the Jam won those two games with a decisiveness not previously seen this season (might have won both by 30-plus if not for a terrible first quarter in game one) and have also beaten the aforementioned Vipers and playoff-contending Reno Bighorns.
So while Trey Johnson may not exactly be Shaquille O’Neal, he has come to Bakersfield and the Jam have been (albeit over a short period) a different and significantly better team. I’d say his impact is pretty easily recognizable.