Wojo: Van Gundy displays independent streak with pick

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Stanley Johnson was eager to prove he was worthy of being the No. 8 pick overall Saturday.

Auburn Hills — In case you weren't sure, now you know. Stan Van Gundy will do it his way, with his type of players, undeterred by rankings or profiles.

That's fine — the Pistons are paying him a lot of money for his expertise. There's no reason to doubt what Van Gundy has done so far, but let's call this the first test of faith. The Pistons got the small forward they craved, not the more highly touted one, when they selected Arizona's Stanley Johnson in the NBA draft Thursday night.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the pick as long as Van Gundy doesn't mind a little controversy (and as long as he's right, of course). Duke's Justise Winslow, a top-five talent according to most experts, was still available at No. 8, but Van Gundy stuck with the guy he wanted. There are shades of differences between Johnson and Winslow, both about the same size (6-foot-6 or 6-7), both about the same age (18-19), both from top college programs.

But when you go against the popular grain, you have to explain the decision, and Van Gundy has no problem doing that. Others might have stopped just short of chanting "No Justise, no peace," but for Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower, it was a no-brainer.

"I understand the comparison with Justise, but that was not the comparison for us," Van Gundy said. "The choice was not between those two at the end. Stanley has versatility and physicality, and a chance to be a very, very, very good defender. Even as a rookie, I don't see him backing away from any challenge."

The other choice actually was Kentucky guard Devin Booker, so the outside debate wasn't penetrating the Pistons' draft room. Van Gundy has banked a lot of equity in his year here, including stellar trades for Reggie Jackson and Ersan Ilyasova, so I don't mind trusting him on this one.

Securing a stopper

Winslow is a dynamic player who won the national title as a freshman at Duke, which greatly enhanced his national profile. Johnson is stronger and a better defender but isn't considered a deadly shooter. Van Gundy always seeks shooters, but this time, defense mattered more. If the NBA indeed is evolving into a deep-shooting league populated by agile wing players, someone has to stop the other guy.

This also was a pick made from a position of power, with Van Gundy secure as owner Tom Gores' leader. So coach Van Gundy was comfortable demanding president Van Gundy deliver him a sound, all-around talent that might lack the wow factor.

Just don't tell Johnson, 19, he lacks anything.

"I say I'm the best player in the draft," Johnson said on the ESPN broadcast. "I say that with confidence."

He also touted the "Detroit versus Everybody" mantra he heard when he visited the Pistons for a workout. Before we know if Johnson will fit with the team, at least we know he's eager to fit with the city.

Van Gundy knows Arizona coach Sean Miller very well, so he got an unfiltered assessment of Johnson's feisty competitiveness. Apparently, it was an easy sell.

"He legitimately did want to be here — that wasn't the reason for our pick, but it certainly was a bonus," Van Gundy said. "We loved his mentality, and he's won everywhere. We were really sold on the fact this guy wants to be great and is willing to put in the effort to be great."

Resisting the title hype

As for that nagging question about the other guy, Van Gundy figured it was coming, and knew why.

"Justise is a very good player and a great kid," Van Gundy said. "But the main reason people ask that question is because he's from Duke and they won the national championship. There's a little bit of a bump from that. I'm not going to get into anything that would negate Justise, we just thought Stanley was the best player on the board at that point."

“I say I’m the best player in the draft,” Stanley Johnson said on ESPN Thursday. “I say that with confidence.”

One thing hasn't changed in the Pistons' new regime — the man making the decision isn't swayed by popular opinion. Generally, that's a good thing. The Johnson pick was among the most hotly debated of the entire first round, and he'll be tethered to Winslow as their careers unfold. It's similar to the squabble launched two years ago when Joe Dumars chose Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over Michigan's Trey Burke.

Note of caution: These arguments aren't easily, or quickly, settled. On draft night, Burke reportedly was being shopped around by Utah. And one of the Pistons' greatest needs — outside shooting – existed partly because Caldwell-Pope has not yet filled it.

Don't expect Johnson to fill it either. He averaged 13.8 points per game and shot 44.6 percent (37.1 on 3s) as a freshman for Arizona, but defense and a tough mentality are his overwhelming strengths.

"He's got some work to do, but he can shoot the ball," Van Gundy said. "We gotta make some changes on his release point. But this is a guy whose game has evolved, gotten better every year, and his shot has improved every year."

Winslow shot 48.6 percent (41.8 on 3s) and is super quick in transition. He might be slightly smaller than Johnson, and the Pistons weren't the only ones to pass on him. He finally went to the Heat at No. 10.

The Pistons still have a gnawing need for wing scorers, evidenced by this ugly statistic: They were last in the league with 8.2 points per game from the small-forward position. That's why someone such as Winslow or Booker seemed logical to many, not to Van Gundy.

It might have looked like a difficult choice from the outside, but from the inside, the Pistons stuck to their plan, no apologies needed.



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