How good is Shaun Johnson?

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In the wake of the New Zealand Warriors releasing Shaun Johnson for the 2019 season and beyond, the answer to the question: “How good is Shaun Johnson?” has never been more important.

In the off-season the Warriors came to a hard conclusion that for the best interests of the club, Johnson was unlikely to be re-signed after the 2019 season and should test his market for long-term security. The Warriors expectation was that Johnson would remain in Auckland for the 2019 season, and given the market this was not an unreasonable assumption. Unfortunately for the Warriors, markets can change, and rapidly. At the time, the Warriors gambled the market for Shaun Johnson in 2019 would be timid with cap-space teams like the Knights looking in other directions and teams who were in need of a half currently devoid of 2019 space (Raiders, Broncos). The Warriors were right.. until they weren’t. Valentine Holmes leaving for the NFL had several ripple effects throughout the league, a financial landscape which was largely barren now had a gaping hole of salary for the 2019 season allowing Johnson to request a release from his contract, giving himself the flexibility to move on without suffering financially in the 2019 season. The Warriors gambled, and they lost.

Johnson is capable of plays few in the NRL can make; he can create opportunities with his running game that only some of the best halves in our history would be able to generate.

In that sequence on the last tackle he steps a rushing defender, recognises an open pocket of space, accelerates, wrong foots two defenders, creates an overlap, threads a perfect pass for a linebreak and stays with the play on the inside to score a try. These are the plays Johnson has the potential to make.

Here’s a look at Johnsons 2018 offensive profile with the ball in hand, compared to the average for lead halves;

Half Average Shaun Johnson
Metres per Run 8.97 9.90
Linebreaks p36 1.92 2.83
Tacklebusts p36 12.16 19.42
Engagements p36 7.86 6.02
Try’s p36 0.16 0.16
Try Assists p36 0.50 0.74
LB Assists p36 0.46 0.58

He ranks 1st in try assists per possession, 3rd in linebreak assists per possession (behind Thurston & Nikorima) as well as ranking at, or above average in every key indicator bar line engagements. By any measure, Johnson is one of the most electric players in the NRL with the ability to bend the line and create opportunities through his running while also generating opportunities for his teammates.

This profile frames Johnson as one of, if not the best half in the league on a per possession basis, yet here are the possession numbers for all qualified lead halves in the NRL per Foxsports Lab:

(2018 NRL Season)

Rank Name Possessions per Game
1 M. Pearce(NEW) 60.33
2 J. Thurston(NQL) 57.25
3 A. Taylor(GLD) 53.17
4 N. Cleary(PEN) 52.76
5 D. Cherry-Evans(MAN) 51.08
6 J. Maloney(PEN) 51.00
7 L. Brooks(WST) 49.17
8 B. Hunt(STI) 49.16
9 C. Townsend(CRO) 48.85
10 A. Reynolds(SOU) 48.71
11 B. Green(WAR) 47.36
12 C. Norman(PAR) 46.43
13 S. Johnson(WAR) 45.95
14 A. Milford(BRI) 45.12
15 C. Cronk(SYD) 44.15
16 A. Sezer(CBR) 43.83
17 M. Moses(PAR) 40.73
18 K. Foran(CBY) 39.75
19 M. Frawley(CBY) 37.46
20 B. Croft(MEL) 34.33
21 K. Nikorima(BRI) 31.63

Johnson ranks 13th, below his halves partner Blake Green and others like Chad Townsend and Corey Norman. Shaun Johnson is an exceptional offensive player, and yet has a usage rate below the league average for halves operating in the same role. Another interesting find is how Johnson uses each possession when he takes receipt;

Runs per 36 Possesions Passes per 36 Possesions Kicks per 36 Possesions
Average: 3.63 19.28 6.93
Shaun Johnson 3.67 15.71 6.68

Johnson’s passing and kicking numbers are about expected – he often shares a large portion of the kicking duties with his halves partner and plays less of the classic facilitating halfback roll. The running numbers however are interesting. Subjectively, most would agree the best facet of Johnsons game is his running, yet on a possessional level he runs at about an average rate compared to other halves. In raw numbers, here are the runs per game of all lead halves per Foxsports Lab:

Rank Name Runs per Game
1 C. Norman(PAR) 7.35
2 N. Cleary(PEN) 7.12
3 L. Brooks(WST) 6.75
4 A. Milford(BRI) 6.68
5 B. Croft(MEL) 5.92
6 J. Maloney(PEN) 5.41
7 D. Cherry-Evans(MAN) 5.17
8 M. Frawley(CBY) 4.92
9 S. Johnson(WAR) 4.68
10 M. Pearce(NEW) 4.60
11 K. Foran(CBY) 4.50
12 B. Hunt(STI) 4.48
13 K. Nikorima(BRI) 4.17
14 J. Thurston(NQL) 4.17
15 A. Taylor(GLD) 3.65
16 C. Townsend(CRO) 3.52
17 M. Moses(PAR) 2.86
18 A. Reynolds(SOU) 2.75
19 B. Green(WAR) 2.68
20 A. Sezer(CBR) 2.56
21 C. Cronk(SYD) 2.46

Johnson only runs the 9th most of all qualified halves, despite being arguably the best ball runner for his position.

Which brings us to the biggest criticism of Shaun Johnson’s offensive game – for a player who is so exceptional with the ball, why isn’t he more involved? This is a great question and one the Warriors have pondered for several years. Johnson has faced heavy criticism for his ability to go missing in games, to the point where the Warriors have actively tried to partner him with halves who are more willing to step in for him and manage the game. This is the conundrum with Shaun Johnson – an exceptional player when involved and he yet doesn’t involve himself anywhere near enough.

Subjectively, many pundits have noted that Johnson often goes missing during big games and big moments when his team needs direction. It’s these moments where we see elite halves elevate their games, take control and demand possession – this is not part of Shaun Johnson’s game. In the biggest game of the Warriors season, a preliminary final against the Panthers where the Dally-M Medallist Roger Tuivasa-Sheck only played 27 minutes through injury – Shaun Johnson used 42 possessions, below his average of 45, and a number that would place him 17th out of 21 halves across the season.

Halves do not need the ball the influence the game, Cooper Cronk is widely recognised as one of the best halves in the modern era and yet in 2018 averaged a similar number of possessions to Shaun Johnson. The difference is the intangible value Cronk provides to his team through organising those around him and directing his team without the ball – the same has never been said of Shaun Johnson. While intangible value is difficult to quantify statistically, based on subjective viewing of the Warriors offence with Shaun Johnson at the helm, their lack of structure and direction makes it difficult to suggest Johnson generates the same level of intangible value, and provides little without the ball in his hands.

The Warriors have tried for several years to fix this issue, they’ve tried several halves partners ranging from game-managers like James Maloney to ad-lib footballers like Tui Lolohea and through all of it Johnson’s tendencies have remained the same. He’s the most dynamic half in the league and yet for every highlight play we see, there are several others where Johnson is anonymous and plays passively.

Shaun Johnson is an outstanding player whose limitations surrounding his involvements and game management place him just below the very elite halves in the game. His reported contract value is estimated to be near $1,000,000 annually which accounts for more than 10% of the salary cap spanning a 30-man roster, which is a significant investment for a half who has competed in 2 finals series in 11 years with a 46% overall winning percentage. The Warriors ultimately decided that Johnson’s production did not match his salary, and the money could be better utilised.

The tantalising element of Shaun Johnson is that with more assertiveness and a different mind-set he could be the best half in the league – yet at 28 years old and a hefty price-tag it’s telling that the Warriors gave up waiting for that to happen. They gave up paying for potential and decided that his play does not justify his contract. Now free from the sometimes-questionable Warriors culture, there are no more excuses – we’re about to find out how good Shaun Johnson really is.

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