Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy doesn’t do coincidences. Stanley Johnson doesn’t lack for confidence.
But as the Pistons return home tonight to face the surging Hawks at the Palace, they’d both do well to believe in each other a bit more. Because if the Pistons are going to find their bearings in a season gone adrift, they’re going to need all hands on deck.
Van Gundy’s still searching for answers with an underachieving roster he’s responsible for compiling and coaching. Johnson, meanwhile, is still searching for a consistent role. But with injuries again playing havoc with the Pistons’ plans, there’s a growing opportunity for both here, or so it would seem.
Jon Leuer returned to practice Tuesday, just as Andre Drummond (knee) and Aron Baynes (knee) joined Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (shoulder) on the sideline. That means more headaches for Van Gundy, obviously. And more issues for a group that has won consecutive games just once in more than six weeks.
But it also offers last year’s rookie first-round pick another chance to prove himself, and prove he’s ready to take the next step like, say, Myles Turner (Indiana) or even Devin Booker (Phoenix), two players taken later in the 2015 draft who’ve started to pay bigger dividends, albeit in different roles.
Last spring, Johnson was busy knocking heads — and trading barbs — with LeBron James in a first-round playoff series. Yet only a month ago, the 20-year-old forward found himself driving to Grand Rapids to play in a Development League game as his coach tried to send another message about accountability.
Work paying off
Looking back on it now, Johnson calls that brief stint “very useful,” which is the right thing to say, no matter how he really felt about it. And watching him after practice Tuesday — he was the last player off the court, by a long shot — it’s apparent some of the criticisms were taken to heart.
“I think his professionalism, his work ethic, his approach, his conditioning, have all been good lately,” Van Gundy said. “So I don’t think it’s really a coincidence, really, that he’s playing a lot better.”
On that count, it sounds as if they’re in agreement.
“I think I’ve played more consistent,” Johnson said. “Better, obviously. But it’d be easy to be better than I was before. And like (assistant coach) Bob Beyer told me today, ‘Just focus on the details.’ When you focus on the details in practice, the game comes a lot easier.”
It’s why he and Boban Marjanovic were working a two-man game — again and again — well after their teammates had finished Tuesday. And why Johnson was by himself working on his three-point shooting — it remains a long-term project, to be sure — after that.
Still, Johnson admits the game comes easier when the playing time comes more regularly, whether it’s aggressively attacking off a pick-and-roll or better anticipation with his weak-side help defense.
“I’ve never had a problem with confidence,” he said. “But the more you’re on the court, the more you get the feel of the ball and the feel of the game. And then, obviously, if you know you’re gonna get a lot of minutes, you’re not really looking over your shoulder. …
“For me, I’ve always struggled, even before I came here, playing short minutes. Frankly, I’ve never had to until here, so it’s a new thing for me. But obviously it’s another hurdle I have to jump over to be better.”
On the recent West Coast swing, he took a positive step, if not a definitive leap. Johnson started well with a strong defensive showing late in the double-overtime win at Portland, and he finished with one of his best games Sunday night in the win over the Lakers. For the trip, Johnson averaged more than 29 minutes a game, shot 50 percent from the field — and from the 3-point line — and he was a plus-17 against the Lakers, finishing with nine points and matching Ish Smith with a team-high six assists.
“I mean, that’s how we won the game,” Van Gundy said afterward, noting Baynes’ bench contributions as well. "Those three guys really turned the game.”
Now, can the Pistons really turn this season around?
The schedule says yes, with five of the next seven games — and 21 of the final 39 — at home. Detroit sits 21/2 games out of eighth in the Eastern Conference right now, with only Charlotte – losers of five in a row — in between. They’re only 3 1/2 games out of fifth in the East.
“We can still have a really good season and do everything we set out to do,” Van Gundy said Tuesday, reiterating a message he delivered to his team over the weekend. “But we can’t do it playing the way we’ve been playing.”
They've been playing with sporadic efforts defensively, and with a disjointed approach offensively on too many nights. (“Honestly, we’ve been putting a bad brand of basketball on the floor,” Johnson admitted.) It starts with the leaders, Reggie Jackson and Drummond, and spirals from there, which is part of the reason Van Gundy seems so frustrated, at times.
But it’s going to take a concerted effort to get back to where this team expected to be after last year’s playoff breakthrough. And when I asked Johnson what it’ll take for this team to find an identity in the second half of the season, he didn’t mince words.
“Me personally, I feel like we’re doing a lot of talking about it,” he said. “For us – and for me — we just gotta go out there and play.”
Not coincidentally, both he and his coach agree on that. So if they're going to get this thing figured out, they might as well start there.