The Miami Heat began the season as a wreck. Miami began the year 11-30 and appeared to be destined for a top-5 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. A torn labrum injury to Justise Winslow sidelined him for the season since the beginning of January. The injury to Winslow seemed to be the icing on the cake for the Heat having a miserable season.

Things dramatically changed in Miami. Thanks to their hard-nosed defense and bench play. (The Heat are fifth in the league in defense–allowing 101.8 points. Dion Waiters went on a tear as the starting shooting guard. Waiters averaged 16.6 points in January, and 18.4 in February. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside have played well all season. Dragic is averaging 20.1 points and 5.9 assists, and Whiteside is putting up 16.8 points and 14 rebounds per game.

Since losing 30 of their first 41 games, the Heat have gone 26-8. Yes, you read that right! As a result of this incredible stretch they are tied for seventh place with the Indiana Pacers.

A big reason for Miami’s success has been forward James Johnson.

Who would’ve thought that the player that the Heat signed to a one-year $4 million deal would be their savior? After all, Johnson averaged 5 points and 2.2 rebounds in Toronto last year.

The 30-year-old is averaging 12.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. Those are career numbers in every category. What makes his numbers impressive is that he hasn’t started one game. Johnson has been efficient all season (48% from the field) as well.

While the numbers are fantastic they don’t tell it all. Johnson is a terrific defender who can guard nearly every spot. He is one of only 11 players in the league to average at least a steal and a block a game. The Heat are a top-five defense in the league, and Johnson is a huge reason. The talented wing has played a role similarly to Nicolas Batum for Charlotte, thanks to his improved play-making abilities.

Johnson should be mentioned as a premier candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year award. Somehow, Johnson has been under-the-radar. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Dennis Schroder are also worthy of the award.

One thing is certain– Johnson won’t be getting four million a year going forward. He should be able to land a multi-year contract paying him anywhere between $10-15 million a year.

Look for Johnson to have a big stretch over the final two weeks. Miami needs him now more than ever as they are clinging on to a playoff berth.

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