This season, the Maine Red Claws have found success, all the while enjoying the luxury of having Celtics' assignees like Jordan Mickey, Terry Rozier, and RJ Hunter hit the minor league hardwood for them. Having such players contribute is an added bonus, but luckily for the Red Claws, they've also benefited from the continued progress of Omari Johnson.
The 25 year old garnered plenty of consideration last season for the league's Most Improved Player award. From the start of the season to the finish, he made strides while continuing to prove his worth for the Red Claws. Fast-forward to 2016, and he's only picked up where he left off, this season. It's become increasingly difficult to keep Johnson off the floor for long periods of time. He stretches the floor well, keeping the opposing defense on its toes. Johnson is knocking down an impressive 42% from deep, pouring in 15.4 points per contest. When he isn't making it rain from downtown, his presence alone is making things easier for those around him.
"When it comes to his shooting and athletic ability, he's as good as an NBA player, if not better, in terms of those things. Any time you can shoot like that, there's a place for you. He's been great to have alongside guys like Tim Frazier (last season), Terry Rozier, and Jordan Mickey," Maine head coach Scott Morrison told RidiculousUpside.com. "When he's next to guys who attack the paint, that gives Omari the chance to shoot more. On the flip side, it makes things easier for the guys attacking the paint because the defense still has to worry about Omari. He's great to have next to guys who can create shots."
"The game is changing, and I'm trying to change up my game in the process. It's really valuable to have a guy like me be a stretch-four because it makes it easier for guards to penetrate," Johnson agreed. "There's a place [for stretch fours] in the NBA."
His playing time has increased and he has started all 23 contests. He started twelve all of last season. There's no doubt he can shoot, but Coach Morrison says that some added versatility continues to make him all the more valuable.
"He stretches the floor and makes things easier for his teammates. But the difference about Omari is that he can do much more than just shoot," the 2014-15 NBA D-League Coach of the Year pointed out. "He's a great offensive rebounder, he can contest shots at the rim, and switch out on the smaller guys and keep them in front of him defensively. That's one thing he's really improved this year."
As such, Johnson has realized ways he can stand out, even while some of the more known players come to town and play prominent roles. Coach Morrison attributes his shooting prowess to that of an NBA player, so perhaps that, coupled with his willingness to be more aggressive on the boards and work on his defensive instincts, means that he's isn't so far off himself.
At 25, Johnson is a bit older than most prospects gunning for the NBA. That could very well work in his favor, however. He carries himself in a mature manner and is often praised for his character and respective work ethic by his coaches. There wouldn't necessarily be an added learning curve, should Johnson have the opportunity to potentially acclimate himself to an NBA system. What's more, he understands his niche and value.
"I've been through a lot of games and faced a lot of top talent. It's not new for me, so I guess that gives me a little advantage," the forward said. "You can put me out there at any time, at any position, and I'll produce."
"We have to help these guys become professionals. Because we're so young, it's like a graduate school. They learn how to take that next step in their career, but still have a certain structure around them," Coach Morrison explained. "Omari had experience before he got to us, so that wasn't an issue for him."