Dallas — Less than a week ago, Stanley Johnson had plenty of questions about where things were going.
He was on a temporary assignment in basketball purgatory, playing for Grand Rapids in the NBA Development League.
It was far away from the luxury of his usual space at The Palace, and seemingly light years away from the position he occupied as the Pistons sixth man last season.
He needed to get some run, a chance to see a couple shots fall. In his 20-year-old mind, though, it felt like a demotion, a warning of where he could be playing if he didn’t get himself together — quickly.
Since then, Johnson has worked his way back into the rotation, getting some minutes in the loss to the 76ers last weekend followed by a good performance as the backup wing in a victory over the Mavericks on Wednesday.
“I’m not going to lose my confidence; it’s all about having focus and having my focus with my confidence and I can be really good in the NBA,” Johnson said Wednesday. “If my confidence and focus is not there, I’ll end up average and coach doesn’t have those dreams for me either.
“I have to do it for myself; all the tough love he’s giving me, I just take it to heart and give it every day.”
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said he’s been trying to get Johnson to focus on defense first and his offense gradually will come. Against Dallas, that blueprint seemed to come to pass, as Johnson had seven points in 15 minutes but played solid defense.
While Van Gundy called the decision on playing Johnson or Darrun Hilliard “a night-to-night thing,” he was pleased with Johnson’s performance. Now, it’s just a case of putting together more consistent production on both ends of the court.
“I think he’s trying to work with me as much as he can but at the end of the day, he’s used to certain things and that’s what he wants,” Johnson said. “My job as a professional if I want to get on the court for him is to do what he says and show what I have to show.”
It’s not so much that Van Gundy and Johnson had a falling out or his benching was a punishment, but if the goal was to get Johnson to focus on the little things, improve his practice habits and get back to where he was last season.
Johnson referred to it as “tough love.”
“You don’t take a player you just sat three games and put him in the game in the fourth quarter and say, “Go (defend),’ ” Johnson said. “Every day for me is a battle to gain his trust and every day for him is a battle to get to know me as well.
“It’s about being easygoing and easy to deal with and keep pushing at it and keep working.”
As Johnson tries to ease back into a reserve role, he says the key is just not thinking as much and being more instinctive.
“It’s about not thinking about making decisions, just playing,” Johnson said. “Just play — that’s all I have to do.
“If I play basketball the way I know how to play basketball, you’ll see what I’m really made of. If I keep thinking out there and second-guessing myself, that’s when you see trash. Play basketball, be efficient, listen to coaches and keep pushing.”
In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Mavericks tried to foul Andre Drummond intentionally and put him on the free-throw line. Van Gundy pulled Drummond, not wanting to put the game on the line.
“Why take our chances on just shooting free throws when you know what they’re going to do?” Van Gundy said. “We were starting to play well offensively, too. I didn’t want to break our rhythm.
“It’s not just the free throws; it’s the time. You’re getting one-second possessions, which is just giving them a lot more chance to come back; I wanted to make them defend.”
Pistons at Wizards
Tip-off: Friday, 7 p.m., Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Notes: The Pistons have won five of their last six road games after a 1-8 start. ... The Wizards have one of the top backcourts in the NBA, with John Wall (24 points) and Bradley Beal (21.8).