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Boston Celtics 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Boston Celtics.

Basketball Insiders

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Since bottoming out and winning only 25 games in 2013-14, the Boston Celtics have been slowly and steadily improving each subsequent season since. They won 40 games in 2014-15, and then jumped up to 48 wins last season.

Now, Boston fans are hoping their team will be able to make arguably the toughest leap of all, graduating from feisty and tenacious upstart into a true contender. Are the Celtics ready to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers and other elite teams?

Basketball Insiders previews the Boston Celtics’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I’m very high on the Celtics entering this season. I’ve stated numerous times that I believe they can be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps present the biggest challenge to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Al Horford is huge, as he will help Boston tremendously on both offense and defense. Horford is ridiculously consistent and he’s going to be an excellent anchor for this Celtics team on both ends of the court. Isaiah Thomas should continue to be an elite point guard, especially now that he has a new toy in Horford and more familiarity with his supporting cast. And, of course, head coach Brad Stevens is a wizard who does an amazing job getting his players to buy in and play to their full potential. Oh, and I don’t think Danny Ainge is done wheeling and dealing either. This may be bold, but I’m predicting that Boston snatches the No. 2 seed in the East this year.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Danny Ainge may not have snatched up Russell Westbrook the way that it seemed destined, but walking away from the summer with Jaylen Brown and Al Horford still presents an amazing scenario. Kris Dunn has a higher perceived ceiling than Brown, but Brown will fit right in with the Celtics, especially in the wake of Evan Turner’s departure. In Atlanta, Horford proved that he could excel with ball-dominant guards and he has improved his game each and every season. With respectable range out to the three-point line, I think he will form a potentially devastating partnership with Isaiah Thomas. As has been the case with Brad Stevens thus far, the individual pieces on the roster seem underwhelming, but so long as the team continues to abide by his philosophy, I think it’s incredibly reasonable to expect them to improve a bit from last season. I would still favor the Raptors in the division and, if the stars align, would give the Knicks a shot at supplanting Horford and his new team. In the end, though, the Celtics are the safe bet to end the season as the runner-up in the Atlantic.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Celtics’ ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder continued last season when the team posted 48 wins and made their second straight trip to the playoffs. Boston followed up their impressive season by landing four time All-Star center Al Horford in free agency. But the question is, even with Horford now in the fold, did the Celtics improve significantly enough to successfully make the jump into true title contention? Or will the franchise need more time to acquire additional pieces? Boston is undoubtedly headed in the right direction and the addition of Horford was huge for their program. However, the Celtics are still pretty young and sooner or later, they’ll have to wait for the younger core to truly mature.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

Arguably the East’s deepest team, the Celtics have no excuse not to make a leap this season now that they’ve added a bona fide All-Star to the mix in Al Horford. While he’s not the game-changing superstar that Kevin Durant would’ve been, he still injects some veteran muscle into what has been a fairly mediocre frontcourt rotation the last few seasons. He is obviously a huge upgrade over the outgoing Jared Sullinger. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are one of the most underrated and gifted backcourt tandems in the league, and Jae Crowder just keeps getting better. Knowing they’re getting Brooklyn’s draft picks the next couple of years (one outright, the other a swap) is just suffocating. Even before adding any more firepower, the Celtics should be one of the East’s powerhouses this season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Celtics made one of the biggest free agent signings this offseason, signing Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract. Horford fills an area of need and should slot in nicely as the team’s starting center. This team thrives on aggression and chemistry, a culture Horford should fit in perfectly. Brad Stevens, one of the best all-around coaches in the NBA, has the task of taking a deep, young roster that lacks top level star power to the next level. Horford brings intelligence, defense and veteran leadership, but he doesn’t address the team’s shaky three-point shooting (and neither do any of Boston’s other acquisitions this offseason). While I like the composition of this roster, I think it’s safe to assume that general manager Danny Ainge will continue looking for potential deals for another star up until the trade deadline. If he can turn his treasure chest of assets into a high-end contributor, the Celtics could become the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Isaiah Thomas

Thomas has been consistently climbed the NBA ladder, going from being an afterthought as the 60th overall pick to a role player to a starter to an All-Star. He did this by establishing himself as one of the NBA’s more creative, exciting and effective offensive weapons. In 2015-16, Thomas became just the fourth player since 2005 to average at least 22 points, six assists and two made three-pointers per game over the course of a full NBA season. The other three members of that exclusive club are Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard. Also, beginning in March and extending into April, Thomas led the Celtics in scoring in 17 consecutive games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 17 consecutive games as the team’s outright leading scorer broke a franchise record that was held by Larry Bird, who recorded 13 straight games as the C’s leading scorer during the 1987-88 season. Al Horford will be an important offensive weapon for the Celtics too, but don’t be surprised if Thomas remains the go-to scorer.

Top Defensive Player: Avery Bradley

Back in April, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, tweeted: “Avery Bradley [is] the best perimeter defender in the league and I don’t think it’s close.” The media pundits who vote on awards at the end of each season were more or less in agreement, giving Bradley First Team All-Defense honors for 2015-16. Having a guard who can lock down other perimeter scorers is invaluable in today’s NBA. Better yet for Boston, Bradley is only 25 years old and just now entering his prime.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

The Celtics have very few playmakers on their roster other than Thomas. Last season, Evan Turner finished second on the team in assists and big man Jared Sullinger actually finished third. With Turner now on the Blazers and Sullinger on the Raptors, the Celtics will be even more reliant on Thomas setting the table for others. But they will also need backup point guard Marcus Smart to improve his distribution abilities, and may need to run more of the offense through the newly acquired Al Horford (who averaged 3.2 assists per game) in the post. Avery Bradley may be asked to handle the ball a bit more as well. However, Thomas will end up shouldering most of the playmaking responsibilities, as he excelled in the role last season. In 2015-16, he joined Larry Bird and John Havlicek as the only Celtics in franchise history to record at least 1,600 points and 500 assists in a single season.

Top Clutch Player: To Be Determined

Isaiah Thomas took many of the big shots late in games last season, but one of the Celtics’ issues was their offense stalling in important moments. Thomas had a tough time getting good, clean looks when the defense focused on him. For instance, he was a far less efficient as a scorer in the postseason. Will Al Horford be able to ease the burden on Thomas in clutch situations? Will Avery Bradley step up and become a reliable late-game shooter? Stay tuned.

The Unheralded Player: Jae Crowder

Crowder has become a cult hero in Beantown, but he’s not viewed with nearly the same reverence outside of New England. He’s the quintessential glue guy who contributes on both ends of the floor. However, his true calling card is being a dogged perimeter defender. Crowder finished the 2015-16 season ranked 14th in the NBA with 1.73 steals per game and finished 15th in total steals across the NBA with 126.

Top New Addition: Al Horford

Of all the free-agent additions made by teams in the East this summer, Boston adding Al Horford might be the most significant. Ainge and company are hoping Horford is a major piece to the puzzle that can help push them over the top. Horford is a terrific two-way player who contributes substantially on both ends of the floor. In fact, last year, Horford became the first player in NBA history to tally at least 60 steals, 80 three-pointers, 120 blocks and 200 assists in the same season.

– Tommy Beer

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Brad Stevens

Stevens, 39, is one of the youngest head coaches in the NBA, but he’s already one of the most respected sideline generals in the league. The Celtics have improved dramatically in each of the three seasons under Stevens’ tutelage. Stevens has quickly established a winning culture and an unselfish, defense-first mindset that has produced impressive early returns. If there was “coaches draft” where GMs and owners could select any other coach in the NBA to run their team, Stevens would go near the very top.

  1. Danny Ainge

Ainge has done a masterful job putting together this balanced Celtics roster. Each of the Celtics’ top-five scorers last season made less than $8 million, and they are set up well going forward too. Considering the insanely enormous contracts handed out this summer, Ainge has many of the C’s core players locked into bargain deals. All-Star Isaiah Thomas will make just $12.8 million combined over the next two seasons. Jae Crowder will earn an average of approximately $7 million for each of the next four seasons. Avery Bradley will earn less than $8.8 million per season through 2018.

  1. Jaylen Brown

It was assumed by many that the Celtics would take guard Kris Dunn with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Instead, the C’s went with Jaylen Brown. Brown is extremely athletic, with an impressive wingspan and the ability to become a versatile defender. Boston’s first impression of Brown was extremely favorable, as he filled up the stat sheet at the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 16 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 steals per contest. Just 19 years old, the sky’s the limit for this kid.

  1. Kelly Olynyk

Olynyk actually finished the 2015-16 season ranked second on the Celtics in total plus/minus. He was +218 this past season, which was good enough for the 16th-best mark in the entire Eastern Conference. His true value lies in his shooting accuracy. Olynyk knocked down 85 three-pointers last season, while shooting 40.4 percent from behind-the-arc. This is very impressive, especially for a big man. That ability to stretch the floor opens up plenty of space on the offensive end for his teammates. With Horford in the fold, Olynyk’s minutes may be reduced a bit, but he’ll still contribute when on the floor.

– Tommy Beer

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics landed free agent Al Horford this summer, using cap room to sign him to a four-year, $113.3 million contract.  Now at the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Boston still has their $2.9 million Room Exception, but 16 players with guaranteed contracts.  Not only will invites Ben Bentil, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Jalen Jones and Damion Lee have a difficult time making the squad, a guaranteed player like James Young or R.J. Hunter could be on the outside looking in.  Boston could look to make a trade, instead of waiving outright, but before the season the team needs to get to 15 players.

Next summer, the Celtics could have $31 million in spending power, under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Young and Hunter by the end of October.  Given the roster crunch, that could increase slightly.  That number also assumes that Boston cuts non-guaranteed players Tyler Zeller, Demetrius Jackson and Jordan Mickey ahead of free agency next July.  Kelly Olynyk is eligible for an extension before November.  The Celtics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in next year’s NBA Draft.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Boston’s defense has been the key to its recent resurgence. Brad Stevens demands defensive effort from his players, and Ainge has supplied him with a roster of spirited, versatile defenders. As a result, they have improved every season under Stevens. Per NBA.com, the Celtics finished the 2015-16 campaign tied for the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA (according to Defensive Rating) with a mark of 100.9. They were also second in the NBA in opponent turnovers per game (16.4), second in steals per game (9.2), 13th in defensive points per game (102.5), seventh in defensive field goal percentage (44.1), fourth in defensive three-point field goal percentage (33.6) and eighth in defensive effective field goal percentage (48.7).

– Tommy Beer

WEAKNESSES

The C’s were strong defensively (as noted above) and also finished 10th overall in Offensive Efficiency (scoring 106.8 point per 100 possessions) last season, so there aren’t many glaring weaknesses the Celtics need to overcome in 2016-17. However, there is obviously room for improvement. They were only middle of the pack in terms of defensive rebounding, which is an area they will need to improve on going forward. They also need to become more creative offensively, as they were often inefficient on the offensive end when the pace of the game slowed down.

– Tommy Beer

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Celtics make the leap from scrappy, up-and-coming team to legit threat next season?

The C’s won 48 games last season, which was tied for the third-most wins the Eastern Conference. One of their flaws in the past was their lack of a reliable low-post scorer and interior defender, but they addressed that hole by reeling in one of the preeminent free agents on the open market in Al Horford. The Celtics were already one of the best defensive teams in the entire league and Horford not only improves them defensively, but also provides much-needed offensive punch. Horford’s versatility allows him to score inside and out. Isaiah Thomas is ready to build upon an All-Star campaign. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson round out what is arguably the most complete and impressive starting five in the East outside of Cleveland. For all these reasons, there is understandable optimism in Boston that the Celtics can capture the Atlantic Division title and advance all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17.

– Tommy Beer

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NBA Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return

Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.

Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.

“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”

The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.

Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.

Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.

To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played).  Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.

“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.

“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”

Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.

The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.

Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.

“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”

In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.

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Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman

Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Spencer Davies

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Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?

Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.

Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.

BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?

Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.

BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?

Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.

BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?

Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.

Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.

BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?

Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.

I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.

BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?

Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.

That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.

BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?

Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.

BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?

Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.

BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?

Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.

BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?

Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.

BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?

Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.

The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.

BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.

Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.

BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?

Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.

I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.

BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?

Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.

BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?

Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.

BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?

Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.

Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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