Volume shooter is a four letter word in basketball circles. It’s why some discredit Allen Iverson’s place in history. It’s one of a select few reasons we see undersized shooting guards from small schools with gaudy scoring totals annually go undrafted and unwanted by the NBA. It’s a label that has been affixed to Trey Johnson since his days of plaguing opposing defenses at Jackson State. But what happens when a player – who fairly or unfairly – may be lumped into an otherwise disdainful club shows enough moxie and skill to develop into a high scoring, efficient weapon? The NBA comes calling.
Johnson has already received one call-up in the past, a brief stint with the Cavaliers two seasons ago. He may be in line for another this year thanks to the tremendous efficiency he has shown on offense while leading the D-League in scoring at 25.6 points per game. That point total isn’t the number we’re interested in though, it’s the near 50% field goal percentage while attempting more than 19 shots per game that is striking. This isn’t the case of a player suddenly redefining his game however, rather an individual who is continually refining his strengths, adding new wrinkles to his arsenal and choosing his spots better than at any other point in his career.
Those who have seen the 6-5 shooting guard play know his game is built around his impressive mid-range game. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Johnson is shooting a scintillating 50.5% on shot attempts ranging from 17 feet to just inside the three-point arc. Only one player who has attempted at least 50 shots from this range has a better percentage – Reno’s Anthony Richardson – and Johnson has taken more than double the number of shots that he has. This has always been a strong point of the fourth-year player’s game, since his college days. He has smooth, consistent form whether operating as a catch and shoot player or firing off the dribble, a rarity at this level for many perimeter players. Furthermore, despite lacking outstanding overall athleticism, Johnson elevates very well on his shot attempts, making it harder for defenders to effectively challenge him.
But none of that explains why he has suddenly seen the level of increase in scoring efficiency that has made him arguably the toughest player to guard in the D-League this season. The answer lies in balance: simply put, Johnson doesn’t allow his defenders to remain on point. He employs a constant torrent of jab steps, ball and head fakes when he isolates – which is on a ridiculous 36% of his possessions according to Synergy – and in doing so creates additional space for himself. While he isn’t a constant threat to attack the basket off the dribble, Johnson has developed and improved in his ability to finish runners and floaters in the lane (shooting 56% here, up nearly 5% from last season), something that is no doubt forcing defenders to play off him an extra half step than in the past. With his quick release and excellent footwork, all Johnson needs to do in order to get his shot off on most nights is to flash a hard jab step and pull back for a jumper, a move that requires significantly less motion than trying to free himself utilizing the dribble, thus making it more effective.
Recognizing the value in creating space for Johnson, Bakersfield is wisely screening for him when he has the basketball much more frequently than in the past. Nearly a quarter of his shot attempts this season have come off screens, but rather than simply firing at will, Johnson displays his growing maturity by observing the manner in which the play is defended before deciding his next course of action. He ranks as the seventh most efficient perimeter scorer off the screen and roll, having taken three times as many shots as any of the players who rank higher than him. Again, it isn’t so much that he has drastically improved his skill set as much as his decision making has become more finely tuned. Johnson remains three times as likely to shoot a jumper off a screen as he is to drive, but he is finishing at a high rate in both scenarios (over 53% in both scenarios) thanks to his better understanding of his limitations and his excellent sense of pace. There’s an inherent sense of calm to Johnson when running the pick and roll, knowing he can take an extra second to let the play develop without sacrificing any potency. In previous seasons it was commonplace for him to fire once free of the screener, but now he recognizes the benefit in extending the play to turn a rushed 23-footer into an uncontested 15-footer.
He remains only an average finisher in transition due to the limitations his modest athleticism present, but it should be noted he has managed to avoid a sudden spike in turnovers in spite of his increased usage by the Jam. From a per game perspective, he is turning the ball over slightly more than a year ago, but his turnover rate has stayed the same, a more accurate representation of where he stands in regards to protecting the basketball.
The numbers have been impressive. Johnson is taking nearly one-quarter of Bakersfield’s shots this season and is hitting almost half of them as a perimeter player who operates primarily as a mid-range gunner. His skills have progressed but his selectivity and intelligence in the half court offense has seen the greatest measure of growth, something that surely will translate well to the NBA where he would transition from being the top option to maybe the fourth or fifth when on the floor. He has matured gracefully in the mental aspect of the game and this could ultimately land him a more permanent role at the next level if the cards fall in the right manner. Until then, D-League defenses will have their hands full.