MIAMI — If actions speak louder than words, the Miami Heatare nearing the point of bellowing their belief in sophomore Tyler Johnson from atop a South Beach high-rise.
The undrafted guard out of Fresno State is weaving his way further into the fabric of the franchise.
Last season, he parlayed a training-camp invite into an NBA D-League roster spot, the D-League run into a pair of 10-day contracts and those 10-day tryouts into a two-year deal. This year, he’s already gone from not playing because of a coach’s decision on opening night to logging 20-plus minutes during each of Miami’s last two games.
But the clearest sign of his soaring stock might be one that initially doesn’t seem to involve him at all.
The Heat and Memphis Grizzlies have reportedly discussed a deal involving veteran point guard (and two-time champion) Mario Chalmers, league sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. Granted, there are millions of reasons for Miami to consider moving Chalmers—as in, the $4.3 million left on his contract and the luxury-tax hit attached to it.
However, the 29-year-old is more than a burdensome salary.
He is, to this point at least, a Heat-lifer. He’s one of a handful of players left from the group that captured two titles during four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
Not to mention, he’s still an active part of this rotation. Only lottery pick Justise Winslow has logged more total minutes among Heat reserves. Trading Chalmers for cap relief would necessitate promoting from within.
The versatile, athletic, sharp-shooting Johnson is the odds-on favorite for the promotion. And, according to the stat sheets from this season and last, this scenario is loaded with addition-by-subtraction potential.
Johnson is all of 35 games into his NBA career. He hasn‘t even started scratching the surface of his abilities yet.
There are so many developmental lessons still to be learned, and he’s soaking up everything he can from his veteran teammates. But there is no more effective teaching tool than playing time.
“The more you play, the more comfortable you get,” Johnson told Bleacher Report after Tuesday’s 98-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. “When you sit and watch, you’re able to see the game from a different way. But there’s nothing like actually being out there and playing.”
The Heat know what they have with Chalmers, who’s spent his entire career in Miami.
At his best, he’s an annoyance at the defensive end and a low-maintenance contributor the other way. He’s still susceptible to some mind-numbing mistakes, but head coach Erik Spoelstra generally has a good grasp of what to expect when he calls Chalmers’ number.
There’s more mystery with Johnson.
He’s had less than a year of service in this system, inking his first 10-day pact in January. The Heat have deployed him at both guard positions, and he’s still finding where he fits.
“I’m still making the adjustment,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out where guys like the ball, where I can be most effective with certain guys on the floor.”
But the bouncy 6’3″ combo guard is a puzzle worth solving.
Big picture, the Heat need youth to supplement their aging roster. And, with several draft debts to pay over the coming years, they’ll have to take creative measures to find it. Their scratch ticket on Hassan Whiteside has already revealed a jackpot prize. This wouldn’t have the same effect, but turning an undrafted player into a regular rotation piece is still a significant boost.
Under a far narrower lens, Johnson can help scratch the Heat’s itch for perimeter shooting.
Miami wants to play an inside-out game, which makes perfect sense given the quality of drivers, slashers and above-the-rim finishers on this roster. But defenses know that in advance and are crowding the paint. The only way to combat that is by hitting long-range shots.
There hasn‘t been a better barometer for the Heat’s success this season than their three-point accuracy.
Johnson is a career 37.3 percent shooter beyond the arc. The sample size is small, but it’s the highest career conversion rate on the team (not counting Winslow’s 37.5 mark through four games). Johnson’s track record also suggests sustainability—he hit 42.0 percent over his final two collegiate years and 42.6 during 15 D-League outings.
As a floor-spacer alone, he’d bring substantial value to this offense.
But his skill set runs deeper than that. He’s an improving playmaker, aggressive defender and audacious dunker.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s a role player who embraces what’s asked of him—”play hard defense, move the ball and make open shots,” he said.
He’s a potential fit alongside any of Miami’s stars: an open-floor sprinter with Goran Dragic, a spot-up sniper for Dwyane Wade, a pick-and-choose partner with Whiteside and Chris Bosh. Johnson has all those weapons in his arsenal right now, and the collection should only expand with time.
Based on what the Heat have seen so far, they expect his game to keep growing.
“He’s the epitome of coming in every day with an approach to get better,” Spoelstra said, via Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. “Ithasn‘t been overnight. … He’s earned the confidence of this coaching staff, but more importantly of his teammates.”
And, apparently, that of the front office.
Miami thinned its backcourt ranks over the summer, trading away bothZoran Dragic and 2014 first-rounder Shabazz Napier. The only other point guards left on the roster behind Goran Dragic are Chalmers and rookie Josh Richardson, who has yet to see any action.
That group could grow even smaller now if Chalmers is moved. Stein’s report clarified that “no deal was considered imminent as of Tuesday,” but the weight of that rumor could be felt inside Miami’s locker room.
Media members mobbed Chalmers after the game seeking further insight, but he didn’t have any to give. He’s in the dark like everyone else having yet to hear anything on his status from the front office.
“That’d be nice,” he said, “but it’s part of the business.”
Finances may have first moved Chalmers onto the trade block. League sources told Grantland’s Zach Lowe back in July that Chalmers and Chris Andersen could be had “for nothing.”
If money got the ball rolling, though, Johnson’s play has accelerated its movement. The Heat won’t admit that, but they don’t have to.
Their actions have already hammered it home.