Pistons' Johnson shows summer league growth spurt

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Stanley Johnson

Orlando, Fla. — Summer league isn’t quite the same as last year for Stanley Johnson.

It’s not about getting comfortable with the NBA or scoring or even winning.

It’s Bizarro World.

The second-year Pistons wing has a mandate from coach Stan Van Gundy and associate coach Bob Beyer — who has the reins for the summer league team — to work on his weaknesses.

And it isn’t easy.

Johnson has been working all offseason on fixing some of his foibles, and on one play he made a nice drive to his left hand and tried to finish with that hand. But he missed the shot.

“He went to his left hand a lot and he needs to continue to do that,” Beyer said Monday. “The one thing I want to caution him about is don’t let frustration set in. There were a couple times that he got a little frustrated because as he’s working on his weaknesses, if it’s not a positive play, he gets frustrated.”

That was the mandate entering the five-game schedule, because Van Gundy initially didn’t plan for Johnson to participate in summer league, fearing that he would revert to his competitive desire to succeed rather than stick with working on his weaknesses.

So far, so good, as Johnson has stuck to the plan, even if the stats are ugly: 2-of-14 from the field for eight points on Monday, after going 5-of-13 in the opener on Saturday. In the two games, he’s a combined 1-of-10 on 3-pointers, another focus area — and another area of frustration.

Johnson, though, is keeping the statistical results in perspective in relation to the overall objective of improvement.

“Fighting frustration is a good way to put it. At the end of the day, it’s not really about being successful here; it’s about me getting better,” he said. “What I’m doing now is going to pay dividends in the longevity of things so I’m going to stick with it.

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“That’s what I bought into when summer started; I’m already 2 1/2 months in, so I may as well stick with it.”

Refining his game

After his encouraging rookie season, Johnson continued to work in the offseason, spending most of May and June in California, with some visits from Van Gundy, Beyer and shooting coach Dave Hopla to reinforce his work on fundamentals and tweaking his mechanics.

It’s a critical summer for Johnson, who was the Pistons’ sixth man last season, to become a more versatile offensive weapon, but also to smooth out some of the rough edges in his form such as footwork, release point on his shots and passing with both hands.

As a rookie he posted 8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and shot just 31 percent on 3-pointers. He’s looking for modest gains in all of those areas, which was impacted by a shoulder injury in the second half of the season.

Johnson made a good impression in his first season and was picked for the USA Basketball Select Team, which will be tasked with helping the national team prepare for the Olympics. It’s an honor, but Johnson will be looking to get back to his strengths by the time that rolls around in a few weeks.

“I’m going to go right (on drives). (It’s) playing against the best players in the world, so that’s a little different than here,” Johnson joked. “Here, I’m just working on my left hand the majority of the time and that’s what’s going to pay dividends in the long run.

“I’ve played a whole season not being able to go left and make plays with my left. Passes like I made today to the other side of the court and coming off the screen. Those one or two plays, I’m happy with my day.”

Strong routine

In addition to the on-court tweaks, Beyer has noticed that Johnson has made strides off the court, as he’s showing some maturity since turning 20 in May.

While he was learning the NBA ropes as a rookie, he’s now taking more of a leadership role, especially with some of the younger players on the summer league team.

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“Not only have I seen it, but everyone who’s watched our practices says he looks like an entirely different person,” Beyer said.

“He wants to be the first guy when we’re getting warmed up to get out on the court, he wants to be the first guy leading us in reps as the first guy in line. Now he takes the rotation and helps the other guys out — and he never did that last year.

Beyer credits some of that maturity to a talk he had with Johnson last season around the All-Star break, when things started to click and he got an epiphany about his work ethic.

“He said, ‘I now understand the importance of routine. I have to come in the gym, have time on court, work with coaches, shoot the same shot all the time,’ ” Beyer said. “It started way back then. In the first half of the season, he came in and he didn’t have a plan.

“I said, ‘Let’s get your fundamental base down,’ and once he started to get a routine, he started to make strides. Now going into the summer, he’s a more routine-based player. And that’s what all the really good pros do — they have great routines.”

Having some struggles in finishing at the basket and hitting 3-pointers is anything but routine for Johnson, but in the long run, he hopes it all pays off with improvement ahead of next season.

He just has to stay with the task at hand — his left hand.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard