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Pistons' Johnson ready to showcase improved game

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Orlando — Stanley Johnson had a strong finish to his rookie season before the Pistons were swept out of their first-round series against the eventual-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Besides a shoulder injury, Johnson had a solid first year, posting 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds.

He enters his second season with higher expectations and hopes to start showing the fruits of his labors in spring workouts during the Orlando summer league tournament, which begins Saturday.

The Pistons held their first practice Tuesday evening and Johnson already has shed the rookie label and begun to carry himself as a veteran.

“I’m just a lot more mature as a player. My second year, I know everything that’s about to happen right now — I’ve been here a trillion times,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t know what to do in the first practice; this year, I’m running the scrimmage.

“I’m more focused on doing the right things right all the time and I was better than my first practice last year. Just knowing everything that’s going on and being more familiar with the coaches and system.”

Johnson, who turned 20 in May, leads the Pistons summer league squad, which also includes Darrun Hilliard and rookies Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije. Initially, head coach Stan Van Gundy and associate coach Bob Beyer didn’t want Johnson to play in summer league, worried that he would revert to his strengths instead of working on his weaknesses, but Johnson is confident that he’s overcome some of his issues with the intense work in the spring.

Whether it carries over from the practice gym to game situations — even in summer league — is the next step.

“I know how it’s going to translate; I think I do. I have to let my game speak for itself, to begin with,” Johnson said. “I’m learning new things — especially a new jump shot. It’s always going to be tough to keep that consistent the whole way through because a jump shot is repetition, so only doing it for a couple months, I still have to work with it a little bit and warm up the right way and get everything going.”

Hilliard already has seen improvement in Johnson.

“The main thing I’ve seen with Stanley is his passing with his left hand has gotten a lot better,” Hilliard said. “I’m sure I’ll notice his shot has gotten better, too. He has matured and he has accepted the role of being a leader and a focal point in the organization.”

Number change

Johnson is changing his number, from the No. 3 that was retired for Ben Wallace last season, to No. 7. Johnson said last season he knew about Wallace and his toughness, but after the team raised the No. 3 to the rafters for Wallace, the decision was easy for him.

“Out of respect for the great career of Ben Wallace, I’m switching numbers to number 7 next year,” Johnson posted to his Twitter account. “Proud to say I’m the last one to wear it…”

Positions filled

The Pistons filled two spots with D-League affiliate Grand Rapids on Wednesday, naming Rex Walters coach and Jon Phelps general manager.

“We’re fortunate to be able to fill these two positions with guys we feel very comfortable with,” Van Gundy said in a statement. “Jon was in Grand Rapids with the Drive the last two years so there’s familiarity and continuity there. We’re confident he will continue to do a good job and transition well into this new role.

“Rex Walters brings a wealth of basketball knowledge and experience and has a passion for developing young players. He’s spent some time with us here and already has a good understanding of how we operate.”

Walters, 46, replaces Otis Smith, who was promoted to a dual role of Pistons assistant/director of player personnel. Walters was coach at San Francisco the past eight seasons and was named West Coast Conference coach of the year in 2013-14.