Auburn Hills — During his rookie season, everything seemed to be moving at light speed for Stanley Johnson.
After he was drafted eighth overall, Johnson played a significant role for the Pistons, primarily as the first man off the bench.
But he wasn’t done.
After initially planning to relax most of the offseason — aside from some individual work on some of his weaknesses — Johnson had a full load. He spent most of the summer at home, playing pickup games in the Drew League in Los Angeles, anchoring the Pistons Summer League team, and participating with the Select Team for USA Basketball, which helped prepare the national team for the Olympics.
“Last year, I made the analogy that I was a kindergartner and then (after the season) I was a senior in high school with my license,” Johnson said. “Now, I feel like I’m a freshman or sophomore in college.”
Johnson, who turned 20 in May, had a solid rookie season, averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 73 games. It was a steep learning curve, but Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy didn’t hesitate to use Johnson as the sixth man all season (he had six starts).
Although he already had an NBA build (6-foot-7, 245 pounds), Johnson didn’t have much experience, turning pro after one year at Arizona. His summer assignment was to focus on improving driving and finishing with his left hand and enhancing his 3-point and midrange game and overall dribbling.
“Outside of the skills that I’ve improved on, it’s the experience of knowing and having a routine: knowing how to work out, knowing how to go hard through your reps and make them game-like, so that when you’re in the game, they feel exactly the same,” Johnson said.
When he played for the Summer League team in July, he struggled with his shot. But as the summer progressed, he got more comfortable, and it started to show in a 46-point performance in a Drew League game and the winning shot in the championship of the OVO Bounce tournament in Toronto.
The experience of playing against other NBA-caliber talent in pickup games helped keep Johnson at a competitive peak, which he’s looking to carry over when training camp begins in a couple weeks.
“Now it’s more comfortable because I’ve played more games and competition,” he said. “Being able to space the floor is obviously going to help the team out, but individually, it’ll make decisions a lot easier because (defenders) can’t play the in-between. They’ll have to give me a 3 or give me a lane to drive.
“I’m good enough that people aren’t going to be able to close out and cut me off at the same time.”
At times last season, Johnson looked to be playing too fast and trying to figure things out on the fly.
But as things slowed down, he started to excel — before a shoulder injury.
He’s learned to separate the physical aspects from the mental aspects of the game, and is focusing on improving both areas. It started to show in the playoff series against the Cavaliers, but with a full year behind him, Johnson hopes to put it on full display.
“As much as athleticism is involved in the NBA game, it’s more mental than anything,” he said. “You’ll see with the rookies when you watch them play, they’re not behind but they’re making plays slower than everybody because they haven’t seen it yet.
“That’s where I was last year — except I was playing, I was in the fire, I was in front of everybody and they were watching me make my mistakes on a grand scale.”
Errors aside, Johnson is looking to help the Pistons improve on the 44 wins last season — and the first-round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers. He had a learning experience in guarding LeBron James and the Pistons recognized the intensity needed to compete and make a longer run in the playoffs.
“We got skunked last year, and that’s still on our minds,” he said. “We have another goal and passion outside of what people have to say about how we’re going to do this year.”