Stanley Johnson's 2nd-season slump snowballing

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Atlanta — In the second halves of the Pistons’ two wins on the eastern road trip, Stanley Johnson has found himself in a very unfamiliar place.

On the bench.

Wearing his warm-ups.

It’s a stark difference from last season, when he was one of the key pieces during the playoff series against the Cavaliers, playing dogged defense against LeBron James.

After serving as a key role as the sixth man last season as a rookie, Johnson is languishing in a reduced role in the first quarter of the season. He’s played in only 17 of the Pistons’ 20 games — including a one-game suspension for violating team rules — and his scoring average is half of the 8.1 points from last season.

It’s almost as if he’s half the player he was during an encouraging rookie campaign.

But it goes further than just numbers — it’s seemingly seeping into his psyche and transforming him into an ineffective, gun-shy rookie. He’s behind second-year wing Darrun Hilliard on the depth chart — at least temporarily — and if Reggie Bullock were healthy, maybe behind him as well.

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“Not being able to play right now, I’m not happy with that — I’ll never be happy with that,” Johnson said after Friday afternoon’s shoot-around. “At the same time, you have to find the silver lining in things and take it for what it’s worth and hopefully I get better at certain things to make coach happy to put me on the court.”

While there doesn’t appear to be a personal rift between Johnson and coach Stan Van Gundy, there is a disconnect in terms of practice habits and what it’s going to take for Johnson to get back into the playing rotation.

But there’s no mistaking how Van Gundy views Johnson as a vital asset in the long run; this might just be a speed bump in the road to his development.

“He’s definitely part of our long-term plan. I think the guy has a chance to be really, really good,” Van Gundy said. “The way the league is going, with position-less basketball, we have a guy who can guard three or four positions and guard them well — that’s invaluable.”

“Finding a guy with his competitiveness to play against the best people is really hard to find. We need him to become a really good player; we have to do everything we can to get him there because he’s a huge part of any long-term success we’re going to have.”

Getting to that level of success, given the current trajectory, will take some time, though. Johnson is in a similar spot to where he was at the beginning of the regular season, when Van Gundy said that Johnson hadn’t distinguished himself as deserving of the top wing off the bench.

“Stanley is young and has a lot of time to get better. Stan has to become a better worker and learner — he just does,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a great competitor and when you put him on the floor, he’s going to play really, really hard. He’s got to get better at all the stuff that leads into going on the court.

“He’s got to be a better practice guy, a better workout guy; he’s got to be better with all that stuff, really working to get better.”

At the end of last season, Van Gundy and Johnson had agreed on a plan for skill development and to work on some of his deficiencies: dribbling and driving with his left hand, improving his jump shot and shot selection. Johnson had an up-and-down summer league, helping the Pistons squad reach the tournament championship.

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But when Johnson returned to training camp in the fall, the improvements didn’t appear to carry over. Van Gundy wanted Johnson to work on his shot selection and decision-making but during the preseason, things just never seemed to get going for Johnson.

It begs the question of whether there’s something in his practice work or he’s just not jibing with Van Gundy, who hinted that it may be a combination of the two.

“Once he’s out there competing, you don’t have a problem with that; he’ll play as hard as anybody. He’s got to understand that’s not the whole thing — it’s preparing to play and working on your game and getting better,” Van Gundy said. “He’s worked on his shot but especially right now, he’s in a tough situation. He didn’t play the other night and his playing time has gone down.

“Players do one of two things at those points: they either start working a lot harder or it’s demotivating and they don’t do as much. What he does with it will be key in both how well he’s able to bounce back this year and what happens in the future.”

Van Gundy insisted that it’s not a test for Johnson or some instance of instituting tough love so that Johnson snaps back into the same form that pushed the Pistons to select him eighth overall in the 2015 draft.

There might still be plenty of work to do with Johnson’s work on the practice court and his attitude in preparing for games that will be the watershed moment that he starts to put things together and regain his stature.

“Stan has days — he’s just inconsistent. He has days where he works extremely hard. He’s not a lazy guy; you watch him play and he plays hard,” Van Gundy said. “Lazy guys are hard to change; he’s tough and competitive and he’s inconsistent. There’s days where he does it and other days where he doesn’t.

“Some of his off-day workouts are good and some of them aren’t very good. Some of these other guys, you know what you’re going to get every day. That’s the part that needs to change. He’s not a lazy guy; it’s just developing a consistency.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard