Blazers Sign Armon Johnson

After listening to the scouts rave about his Las Vegas Summer League performance, it should come as no surprise that the Portland Trail Blazers announced today the signing of rookie point guard Armon Johnson.

Some are asking: Why Johnson over Patty Mills?  That's an overly simplistic false dichotomy. The question to ask of each player is: How do they fit with the rest of the locked in roster pieces? For Johnson, even though he's still young and untested at the professional level, the early answer is: like a glove.

Boasting good size and displaying solid strength and quickness coming out of Nevada, Johnson impressed throughout Summer League with his ability to run an offense, make good decisions, display good shot selection, limit his turnovers and, perhaps most importantly, really get after it defensively.  He can't quite guard both backcourt positions but he should be able to handle undersized twos (combo guards) as well as most point guards.  The biggest knock on him, of course, remains his jumper.  It's been a point of emphasis in his development work since before he was drafted.  Johnson doesn't lack for confidence: you might remember that back in June he said his goal was to be an "all star caliber point guard down the road."

As for Mills, this signing shouldn't come as a surprise. The writing on the wall was more like graffiti.  Mills' skillset remains a square peg/round hole fit here in Portland.  Recent interest from overseas is a positive sign for him but it's still unclear whether he will get an offer from another NBA team, which is his clear first priority.  The Blazers should be in no hurry to make a decision regarding his future.  If a trade winds up opening up a roster spot then they might still give him a look.  When Mills gets an offer elsewhere that suits him, the Blazers will almost certainly let him walk.  That seems like the path that's in the collective best interest. Mills needs lots of touches and lots of possessions as he has significant skill development ahead of him.  He will find neither in Portland.

It should also be noted that the Blazers reportedly spent $2 million to trade up 10 spots in the second round, using the 34th pick they acquired to draft Johnson.  Given the size of that investment relative to the team's overall payroll his signing was a virtual guarantee, regardless of how he fared in Summer League.  His solid week in the desert turned the decision into something of a no-brainer.

To pull it together: Johnson plugs in nicely at the third string point guard position.  He likely will not see much court time unless either Andre Miller or Jerryd Bayless is traded or injured.  Depending on match-ups and who is healthy and when, there's the possibility he will be pushed to the inactive list on some nights. Nevertheless, he's Portland's latest and greatest point guard hope, and who doesn't love that?

Need to get up to speed on Johnson?

Here's my initial interview with Johnson during his pre-draft workout.

Johnson has one final trait that has marked some Blazers draft picks in the past: a chip on the shoulder because he has been overlooked.  I asked him where he saw himself in two or three years as a player.  "I definitely want to be an all star caliber point guard down the road," Johnson said, without hesitation. "If that's not what you strive for, then this shouldn't be what you do."  Not many projected late-first/early-second round players play the all star card that readily.

Anointing Johnson as a rotation player would be premature.  He hasn't even hopped all of the Summer League hurdles yet and those are a long way up the track from actual playing time.  But if you're looking for a guy with the inside track, who might be able to help the Blazer lineup eventually, even in a reserve capacity, Johnson is the stand-out this year.  As Ben pointed out in his recap post A.J. is looking like a hot prospect and a good fit.  That's a great combination.  So far, the buzz is justified.    

More Mike Born on Armon Johnson...

What we saw in him as a player we're continuing to see grow for him. We liked his size, we liked his athleticism, he's got good length, he's tough. He guards. Offensively he can run a team, he's going to have to continue to do a good job. At Nevada he scored 14 or 15 points a game, he did pretty well on assists and rebounds. Just finding that balance of how do I run my team and also not be a liability on offense. I don't think he's going to be a liability on offense but it's that fine line of trying to figure out how can I run this team and also be a capable scorer, because he's definitely a capable scorer.

More Chad Buchanan on Armon Johnson...

I would say that maybe raised our eyebrows was how and when he passed the ball. He's better in pick and roll. They didn't run a ton of it in Nevada for us to see that skill. We thought he could do it because he has the size and strength with the ball in his hands to get to spots you need to get to in a pick and roll situation. I think his passing off of that -- he's one of those guys as a point guard it's the most important trait to be successful in this league, to be able to play with your head up and the ball in your hands. Armon can do that. He's confident with the ball, he's strong with it. His vision coming off of the pick and roll was better than we anticipated it being.

Looking at other things he did well, I thought he defended multiple positions, he defended ones and twos, did a great job on both positions. I think his shot selection was very good for the most part. I didn't feel like he forced a whole lot. He's a great finisher. In college he could overpower guys around the hole, smaller guards, and that was one thing you felt like was going to translate. It did here. Let's see if it can translate against NBA guards.  

Joe Cronin on Armon Johnson...

We like Armon. A lot.

It hasn't surprised us, I wouldn't say, but I would go back to the fact that it's Summer League and you take it for what it's worth. Whereas some guys do well and you've got to kind of hedge it a little bit and some guys play poorly and you've got to hedge that a little. I don't think we're too high or too low but we're happy with what we've seen. He's what we thought he would be, I think. 

Defensively he's been very good. That's what we thought he would be. At Nevada he carried a lot of the offensive load, he and Luke it was pretty much those two, so he wasn't able to press up 90 feet at all times. Really get up in guys because he had to stay on the floor. But he wants to, no doubt. His defensive effort, grit, his offensive composure, all of that has been a pleasant surprise. Not turning the ball over a whole lot, making pretty good decisions.

Some discussion from Chad Buchanan about Johnson guarding Wayne Ellington during Summer League.

"I thought Armon was fantastic tonight," Portland's Director of College Scouting Chad Buchanan said.  "I think that was a major bright spot of our play tonight, him guarding Wayne. He just has such good feet laterally that if guys want to break you down off the dribble they have a hard time getting separation.  I think you saw that from Armon tonight. I thought he did a great job of keeping him in front, making him shoot tough jumpshots. I think every shot felt like he took, Armon was in his area contesting it. You could just sense Wayne a little frustrated tonight dealing with Armon."

The Blazers have talked about Johnson's ability to cover two positions and this is what they envisioned: Johnson as a combo-stopper. "I think against ones and a lot of those combo guards he's got the tools to defend both of those guys. There's a lot of those guys in our league. You talk about a Jason Terry, I think you can throw Armon out there against a guy like that."    

Dave's Summer League review...

Armon Johnson was clearly the standout player of the week for the Blazers.  His stock rose enormously.  He played well on both ends, guarded a variety of players, kept his head in the game, and filled the boxscore on good nights and bad.  His physical qualities were exciting.  His production looked both solid and transferable.  You never decide anything based on one week in July but Johnson has inspired hope, if not confidence, among observers and team officials both.  As much as folks don't want to admit it sometimes, the Blazers point guard situation is still in flux.  Johnson's performance was enough to pencil him in as a possible partial answer to that conundrum.  "Possible" and "partial" aren't exactly ringing endorsements but given the lack of solid leads so far they look pretty good.

Here's the team's official press release.

PORTLAND, Ore. - The Portland Trail Blazers signed rookie guard Armon Johnson, General Manager Rich Cho announced today. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

"We feel Armon can help this team and are excited to have him on board," said Cho. "He's a physical guard who can defend, and we like his potential."

Selected by the Trail Blazers with the 34th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Johnson led Portland's 2010 Summer League entry with 33.2 minutes per game, averaging 11.6 points (fourth on team), 2.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists (second on team) and 2.20 steals (led team) in five games (all starts).

Johnson, 21, played three years at the University of Nevada from 2007-10, where he averaged 14.3 points (46.7% FG, 75.0% FT), 3.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 32.7 minutes in 101 games (99 starts). The Chicago native led the Wolf Pack in assists in each of his three seasons.

The 6-3, 195-pound Johnson earned First Team All-WAC honors as a sophomore, Second Team All-WAC honors as a junior and was named the 2008 WAC Freshman of the Year.

Johnson becomes the 15th player on the Trail Blazers' current roster. He will wear jersey No. 1.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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