by DeMarco Williams

There was a brilliant flick that came out a few years back called The Prestige. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale played rival magicians trying to one-up the other’s theatrics in 19th century England. For those not up on their illusion lingo, the “prestige” is the all-important third part of a trick. You have the pledge (a common object), the turn (said object doing something special) and, fiJoe Johnsonnally, the Voila! moment. The prestige is that key last piece that gets jaws to drop.

Joe Johnson may know nothing of the Christopher Nolan-directed gem, but it’s an undeniable truth that the young man is living out the movie’s premise. An unassuming shooting guard out of Arkansas in ‘01, some weren’t overly impressed with Joe’s pledge. Many discounted the 6-7 gunner as a career complimentary player, a good wing for the right system. Ahhh, but Johnson had a trick up his sleeve. As four so-so seasons in Boston and Phoenix and five super years in Atlanta have shown, the young man effortlessly drives to the hole, scores buckets in bunches and proves serviceable on the defensive end.

His turn was almost brilliant.

Present-day critics of Joe’s act like to point out that he’s had consecutive postseasons of poor play. Maybe all the stage lights are too much for the reserved 29-year-old. Maybe they’re not. In nine regular season contests last year against the NBA’s elite (L.A. Lakers, Cleveland and Boston), Joe averaged a handsome 23.7 points a night. Dude doesn’t vanish amidst pressure.

But for this next act, he’s got to do more of it more often.

The 2010-11 campaign will, of course, be the first after the summer of shenanigans. Guys all over the League have something to prove. LBJ has to show a South Beach relocation was smart. Amar’e’s gotta demonstrate how he can carry a load by his lonesome. And Johnson, a four-time all-star, has to let everyone outside the Hawks front-office know that he’s worth six years/$119 million. Some say the only way he can do that is by guiding Atlanta to the Eastern Conference crown. Not so. What he will need to do, however, is pull a David Blaine-like sleight of hand, hoping people look one direction while he’s working his magic elsewhere.

So, yeah, ESPN, have your “Heat Index.” Keep waiting for Superman down in Orlando. Johnson will be quietly minding his business, getting his 22, 5 and 5 every night, going to another all-star game and seeing that his team earns a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. You laughin’? Josh Smith is better (his 13-spot jump in SLAM’s ranking says as much). Al Horford is a beast. New Hawks head coach Larry Drew is bright. Marvin Williams and Jamal Crawford are ballin’ for new deals. Keep laughin’.

Still, no matter how vivid the season outlook appears, Johnson’s issues won’t just magically disappear. After saying he didn’t care if Hawks fans showed up for games or not late last season, Johnson was given a hard time in the papers. All the fuss seemed a bit much. The dude half the media said had no emotions to begin with was, in fact, being emotional. He and his trusty sidekicks were putting on a show in front of a half-empty arena. You’d be pissed too.

That same subtle fire will burn this year. How can it not? He heard you call him unworthy of the money. He sees how experts have Atlanta slated for sixth in the East. Trust and believe he’s internalized all of that and will re-channel it into something special. That, my friends, will be the third part to Joe Johnson’s performance. The prestige, if you will. Prepare to be amazed.

Ray AllenCelticsSG5036109
Gilbert ArenasWizardsSG493498
Lamar OdomLakersPF48331410
John WallWizardsPG47NR13NR
OJ MayoGrizzliesSG4646812
Al HorfordHawksC45NR6NR
Jason KiddMavsPG44451210
Joakim NoahBullsC43NR5NR
LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF42391312
David WestHornetsPF4131128
Monta EllisWarriorsSG40NR7NR
Andrew BogutBucksC39NR4NR
Yao MingRocketsC38NR3NR
Brandon JenningsBucksPG37NR11NR
Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF36NR11NR
Stephen CurryWarriorsPG35NR10NR
David LeeWarriorsPF34NR10NR
Brook LopezNetsC33NR2NR
Gerald WallaceBobcatsSF32NR7NR
Manu GinobiliSpursSG312967
Tony ParkerSpursPG301593
Kevin GarnettCelticsPF291393
Rudy GayGrizzliesSF284469
Josh SmithHawksPF2740813
Andre Iguodala76ersSG262656
Al JeffersonJazzPF252377
Russell WestbrookThunderPG24NR8NR
Chauncey BillupsNuggetsPG231975
Tyreke EvansKingsPG22NR6NR
Danny GrangerPacersSF212155
Carlos BoozerBullsPF203269
Paul PierceCelticsSF191744
Joe JohnsonHawksSG182044

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.