Amir Johnson does a funny thing when you tell him his true value on a basketball court.
The Toronto Raptors forward, long the darling of the NBA's statheads, seems like a modest guy. The night before he gave an interview in Toronto this month, he had appeared as a guest judge on Canada's version of "Top Chef." He might have been fine talking about food instead of basketball; in fact, when a visiting radio host took Johnson aside earlier in the day, the host seemed to care little about the team's first playoff appearance since 2008. Instead, for an on-air bit, he cajoled Johnson into singing the Backstreet Boys instead of his teammates' praises.
But now the topic at hand is this: Johnson is worth a ton to the Raptors, who tied their first-round playoff series with the Nets at two games apiece Sunday night in Brooklyn. At just 26 years old, he's never made an All-Star team -- hasn't even come close. Not once in his nine seasons has he averaged more than 11 points or 7.5 rebounds per game. Sometimes, he doesn't even start. Yet there is a large sect of league followers that consider Johnson among the most valuable, efficient and irreplaceable players in the NBA.
When he is told this, Johnson pulls a hand toward his face and cups it with his palm. He shields himself from view for an instant, turning his head down, away from a reporter, and to the floor. But there is a smile there, too.
Johnson is the last of a discontinued model. In 2005, during the final draft before the NBA put its new age limit in place, the Detroit Pistons selected the last prep star ever to be called to the pros. From Westchester High School in Los Angeles, Johnson moved to the Motor City, an 18-year-old joining a team with some of the most revered big men in the league.
With Detroit, Johnson never broke 16 minutes per game for a season. But under a quintet of old dogs -- Dale Davis, Antonio McDyess, Kelvin Cato and the Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed -- he learned NBA basketball.
Early on, Johnson caught the eye of Pistons assistant Michael Curry, who began to see that Johnson's stats didn't seem to appropriately measure his worth to the team. When Curry became head coach in 2008, he gave Johnson his first starts in the NBA.
"A lot of people questioned why I would be playing him when I had some veteran guys," Curry says. "But Amir could get four, six points and six rebounds, but that didn't even begin to show you how much impact he had actually had on the game."
By the time he was traded to Toronto in 2009, Johnson was an insider's commodity. He had bounced around the D-League and scored just 3.5 points per game in his most recent NBA season, though Johnson's stock was rising as an undervalued asset among those who looked beyond the box score.
Johnson's traditional stats are forgettable -- he averaged 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this regular season and is averaging 10.5 and 5.8 against the Nets -- and often he'll uncork what seems to be a stinker.