Niyo: Pistons' Johnson looks to fulfill potential in 'big year'
Detroit — It’s a word they kept selling, even if few were buying it as time went on. But as Pistons owner Tom Gores starts anew with this NBA franchise of his, remodeling the front office and bringing in another coaching staff, the sales pitch has to strike a different tone now.
“Tom says, ‘I’m tired of hearing the word potential,’” said Stanley Johnson, who has worn that label like a scarlet letter for much of his young NBA career.
And for new head coach Dwane Casey, speaking Monday on the eve of his first training camp with the Pistons, there was no sense ignoring it, either.
“It’s no secret this is a big year for him,” Casey said of Johnson, the former lottery pick who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. “But he’s approaching it in a great way.”
They all are, judging by the body language and the actual words we heard during the Pistons' annual media day at Little Caesars Arena. And that’s a helpful starting point as the Pistons try to maximize the odd collection of talent on this roster, and particularly in Johnson, something that Casey’s predecessor — Stan Van Gundy — never quite managed in three seasons after selecting him eighth overall in the 2015 NBA draft.
In that sense, the current management is off the hook — they didn’t draft Johnson, nor are they contractually tied to him beyond this season. Still, the pressure remains to make something of a fourth-year pro who’s only 22 years old and possesses some unique traits, both physically and mentally.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward dealt with nagging injuries last season — a hip flexor, then lower-back issues — yet that was only part of the impetus for an offseason makeover that’s hard to ignore as the Pistons begin training camp.
Mostly, he says, it was the uneasy feelings another rollercoaster season left him with last spring. Johnson enjoyed stretches — first in November, and later around the trade deadline — when he looked like he was finally putting things together. But Johnson finished with a stat line that looked a lot like his rookie season, and for a guy who was drafted ahead of Devin Booker and Myles Turner, the growth curve isn’t nearly steep enough.
“That’s on me,” said Johnson, who averaged 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds while starting 50 games last season. “Being consistent and doing it every day, that’s what makes professionals professionals. I’ve thought about it a long time this summer, and I’ve talked to people and I felt my approach could be better.
“So that’s what I did this summer. I started changing my habits — eating, sleeping, working out, communication, things like that. Just to make it a better situation for me to help the team.”
In turn, the team — from ownership on down — has made player development a priority, and two of the coaches Casey brought with him from Toronto, D.J. Bakker and Jarred DuBois, wasted little time in getting to work with Johnson and some of the Pistons’ other young players in late June.
In Johnson’s case, much of that work revolves around a jump shot that severely limits his offensive efficiency, not to mention his prospects as a restricted free agent next summer. Ideally, he’d project as the kind of 3-and-D wing that is coveted around the league. But Johnson made just 28.6 percent of his 3-point attempts a year ago, continuing a three-year trend-line of diminishing returns.
Not surprisingly, Johnson says he spent “the lion’s share of my workouts shooting 3s and making 3s” this summer, trying to find both a consistent release point and a confident rhythm. And he figures to get another confidence boost this fall from Casey, who was encouraged by Johnson’s play in voluntary workouts last week — “I don’t know if he missed a shot,” the coach said — and has green-lighted more than his share of projects in the past.
Most recently, Casey points to Pascal Siakam, the young power forward in Toronto who shot just 18.7 percent from 3 in the Raptors’ first 60 games last season before finally finding his groove in time for the playoffs.
“We gave him confidence and empowered him,” Casey said, “and he came through.”
And that’s the recipe he’ll try here in Detroit, where Van Gundy’s more abrasive style — backed by his dual titles as team president and head coach — clearly had worn thin with some of the players.
Like the rest of his teammates, Johnson wasn’t interested in picking at any of those scabs Monday, even as reporters lobbed the inevitable compare-and-contrast questions at the rim.
“But I will say, I think (Casey) is gonna let all of us — as a group, collectively — play to our strengths a little more than we have,” Johnson said.
Or, as center Andre Drummond put it, “I think it’s gonna take a lot of guys out of their box and give them the role that they need to be successful for our team.”
And when asked Monday whether Casey’s apparent willingness to employ unconventional lineups might help his own game flourish, Johnson replied quickly, “1,000 percent.”
“I mean, part of the reason I got drafted was my versatility,” he added.
So whether it’s Johnson seeing more minutes at the four in a small-ball lineup or returning to a sixth-man role and perhaps more playmaking opportunities with the ball in his hands, everyone senses an opportunity here. Everyone sees the potential.
Taking ownership of it, though, that’s the challenge.