Pistons’ Johnson shows flashes, still work in progress

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Stanley Johnson drives to the basket against the Heat's Justise Winslow on Tuesday night.

Miami — Hindsight generally is much better than trying to be a soothsayer, but sometimes that gets lost in the murky haze of second-guessing.

On Tuesday night, the second-guessers got their chance to pick apart the Pistons’ selection, when they chose Stanley Johnson over Duke’s Justise Winslow in the draft. Both were potential Pistons picks at the No. 8 slot, but coach Stan Van Gundy went with the player he coveted more.

Statistically, Johnson seems to be having a better rookie season, averaging 8.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and hitting just 38 percent from the field. Winslow is posting 6.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 42 percent on field goals — but in six more minutes per game (27.5) than Johnson.

Digging deeper, though, in per-36-minute stats, Johnson averages 13.4 points to Winslow’s 7.8. Of course, it’s too early in the season — and in the two forwards’ careers — to make any definitive determination about whether the Johnson selection was right.

But Van Gundy clearly believes it was right for the Pistons.

Van Gundy admittedly is impatient, but he sees that Johnson is still a work in progress — with plenty of positives and some concerns — as he works his way into the NBA.

“It’s still up and down but we’ve seen good potential,” Van Gundy said before Tuesday’s game against the Heat. “He’s a guy who’s on the attack, he plays the game hard; he certainly shows no fear.

“He’s got a lot of developing to do; he has a lot to learn on the defensive end of the floor. Offensively, his decision-making is going to have to improve — when to shoot and when to pass — and he needs a lot of work on his footwork.”

That sounds more like an assessment of a second-round project, not a lottery pick, but Van Gundy is high on Johnson’s upside, often pointing to the fact that Johnson has an NBA-ready body at age 19 and didn’t have the change to develop all of his fundamentals in his one season in college at Arizona.

In some ways, Johnson still is a project, but not in the sense of the negative connotation. He’ll have some head-nodding performances, as he did against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night in the four-overtime win — with 16 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes.

He shot 6-of-11 from the field and showed an array of moves, with pull-ups and power drives to the basket. As he gets to know the NBA game, he’s finding out what works and learning along the way.

“That (variety of shots) is there,” Johnson said Friday. “Whether I make it or miss it is the question. I have to get to the rim to get myself going.”

Van Gundy has said from the beginning that Johnson has value on both ends of the court but will need to adjust to how the game is played, working against savvy veterans and getting more secure in fundamentals.

Within that, though, Van Gundy has to remind himself that Johnson is a rookie — while keeping his impatience in check.

“He’s 19, so he’s probably ahead of where I would expect a rookie to be at his age. I’m happy with him, but he’s got a long way to go,” Van Gundy said. “He’s made some passes and it’s been incremental improvement. He’s learning defensively all the time.

“Now, he’s at the point where if we’re watching film and we’re talking about things, he knows what’s supposed to happen. Whether he can go out in the course of a game and lock into all that and react quickly enough — no, not all the time but he’s learning and he knows what’s going on and that’s good.”

Taking the long view will be the constant challenge for both Van Gundy and Johnson, as the rookie season nears the halfway point — and beyond.

The Pistons’ nucleus is mostly young and Van Gundy is seeing some progress, but it still isn’t where he would like it to be.

“I fail in patience all the time, but I am aware that he’s got a long way to go and he’s only 19 and we’ve got a lot of work to do with him,” Van Gundy said. “The thing I’ve got to remind myself all the time when I’m upset is that in our top six guys in terms of playing time, we’ve got two 22-year-olds, a 19-year-old and a point guard who’s a starting point guard for the first time in his career.

“At times, I have to bring myself back to earth a little bit that it’s not going to be this consistent rise. We’re going to have a lot of ups and down and we’re going to have some nights where we play like we’re those ages.”