Niyo: Van Gundy finds another sore loser in Johnson

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Stanley Johnson

Auburn Hills — Stanley Johnson knows he'll be tested.

He doesn't like to lose — not that he has much experience with that — and the NBA team that drafted him this summer has lost more games (304) the last six years than any other in the Eastern Conference during that span.

But Johnson, the Pistons' first-round pick out of Arizona, also knows what the man who drafted him believes.

"There's one thing in this job that bothers me," said Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons' coach and team president. "That's losing."

And Johnson, whose stock has continued to rise since the Pistons selected him eighth overall in June, insists that makes him the perfect fit for a team that admittedly has had a hard time putting together the puzzle pieces lately.

"You want to be around people that are like you," said Johnson, who was at The Palace practice facility for an informal workout Thursday morning. "I don't think Stan would draft me if he wasn't looking for the same things."

No, he wouldn't. And though it's generally a risky proposition, putting too much stock in the words of a teenager, the more you hear from this 19-year-old the easier it is to see the promise.

"I think we're a team of substance," Johnson said. "We're gonna be substance instead of flash."

Grand plans

Johnson flashes an easy smile as he talks about his grand plans, and those he holds for his new team. ("If you're going into a season trying to win a playoff game or get to the playoffs, I think you're holding yourself short," he says.) He doesn't bother to hide the chip he carries on his shoulder, either.

"I don't believe in what people have to say," Johnson said, when asked about the skeptics. "I have a mind of my own."

It was his mother, Karen Taylor, who began molding that mindset at an early age. A former basketball star herself — Taylor was inducted into the Jackson State Hall of Fame and played professionally in Europe — she organized and coached Johnson's AAU team for nearly a decade. (He started at age 5.) She also made sure he was ready to handle himself off the court, going so far as to stage mock interview sessions to prepare him for what was to come.

Still, even after years of his mother battling breast cancer, it's impossible to prepare for everything. And Taylor's death earlier this month understandably hit hard.

"It's been tough," Johnson said. "But I'm a professional. I have a job. So I handle my family stuff. I've got a lot of help as well."

It helped he already knew some of his teammates in Detroit. His relationship with center Andre Drummond, who joined him for the offseason training in California and whom he plans to live with this fall, dates to high school. ("To be on the same team is kind of weird, because it's like, 'Man, look where life has taken us,'" Johnson said.) And in point guard Reggie Jackson, whom he knew through a mutual friend, Johnson sees not just an emerging team leader, but a kindred spirit.

"With me and Reggie, I think we're both thinking of the bigger picture," Johnson said. "Thinking of doing bigger things, and what's more important. A lot of guys in the league are worried about money and stuff like that. I think we're worried about winning. Because that's what makes us happy. That's what makes me happy."

Earning respect

What'll make fans happy is if he contributes right away as rookie. And if he can play the way he did in his Summer League debut, turning heads, even among his peers. In annual survey of the NBA's rookie class a few weeks ago, Johnson was second behind Jahlil Okafor in predictions for 2015-16 rookie of the year. He received the fifth-most votes when rookies were asked who'll have the best career.

"To have that respect amongst my class means a lot to me," he said.

Earning the respect of his new teammates matters more, though, and he's off to a good start there. (If he can shoot the ball the way he did in Orlando in July, "then I don't see why he can't be as good as he wants to be," point guard Spencer Dinwiddie said.) He'll get to know them all better in a couple weeks when the Pistons get together for a team-bonding boot camp with Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors and training staff in Las Vegas.

Johnson looks like he's ready for the Octagon right now. He's strong, he's quick, and at 6-foot-7 and a chiseled 240 pounds, he looks more than ready to handle the physical rigors of the NBA. But just in case, when he left Summer League, he headed back to the P3 (Peak Performance Project) training facility in Santa Barbara where he'd spent time prepping for the draft.

"They create machines out there," said Johnson, who, joined by Drummond in the daily suffering there, decided six weeks wasn't enough. "So I did two extra (weeks) just to tighten things up."

He knows he's about to be tested, you see. And he wants to be ready.