Pistons' Johnson regains groove in stint with Drive

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
The Grand Rapids Drive's Stanley Johnson (23) pulls up to shoot against the Delaware 87ers during an NBA D-League basketball game Saturday at the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich.,

Walker, Mich. —  It seemed almost to be a trip in the Wayback Machine.

Stanley Johnson got the ball on the wing, with one defender in front of him. He took a couple dribbles straight toward the rim, unrelenting.

The defender back-pedaled and Johnson put down a powerful, one-handed dunk.

Highlight-reel stuff.

It was a flashback — to last season — when Johnson was a rookie with the Pistons, or even the previous year, when he was a standout as a freshman at Arizona.

Except it was in front of a much smaller crowd of about 3,116, at the DeltaPlex Arena and Johnson was donning a Grand Rapids Drive jersey.

Things change quickly in the NBA.

BOX SCORE: Delaware 107, Grand Rapids 96

Johnson was sent down Saturday to play in the NBA Development League with the Drive, likely more as a tune-up to get him some playing time — much like Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has done with rookies Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije, who also joined Johnson on Saturday — to keep them fresh and in playing shape.

Johnson finished 26 points, five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes as the Drive fell to the Delaware 87ers, 107-96, on Saturday night.

“(Van Gundy) hit me last night with (the idea of playing for the Drive),” Johnson said. “I was with it because I want to play. It’s tough to watch games go by and obviously you want to play and catch a feel.

“I haven’t played (this much) in months so just to get a feel and hope I get another opportunity in the NBA and I’ll be able to play.”

It wasn’t as much about the stats as it was just getting Johnson to regain his basketball mojo. He re-engaged Saturday, attacking the rim and getting back into a rhythm, something he’s lost this season as he’s fallen from the Pistons’ playing rotation and into a reserve purgatory, behind Darrun Hilliard, who was picked in the second round — behind Johnson — before last season.

For that task, it looked to be mission accomplished, as Johnson followed the one-handed, contested dunk with a baseline spin and two-handed smash on the next possession. He also went 3-of-8 on 3-pointers and showed good court recognition in finding open teammates with the four assists.

“I thought it was an all-positive to see where (my game) is,” Johnson said, “to be able to go out and play and get a chance to play without looking over my shoulder and just play.”

Less than 24 hours earlier, Johnson was in Minneapolis on Friday, finishing out the final minutes of the Pistons’ blowout win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he had two points and three rebounds in four minutes.

With the Drive, Johnson got out in transition and played to his strengths, not settling for set shots, but trying to create on his own and in the flow of the offense. The back-to-back dunks got him going and rejuvenated his energy

“I was trying to do a little bit of everything. I attacked the rim and tried to make plays in transition,” he said. “(On the dunk) I was about to lay it up and I saw the dude trying to chase me down so I just dunked on him.”

On Sunday, it’s back to reality, as he’ll go back to the Pistons to prepare for the night game against the Philadelphia 76ers at The Palace.

But for one night, he tried to get back to himself.

Maybe it was a wake-up call for Johnson, who has struggled this season after a promising rookie season in which he averaged 8.1 points and looked to be a solid piece of the Pistons’ long-term plans.

“I was talking to a friend and she said, ‘Just play — whatever you do, just play. If you miss 100 shots, just play the way we all know you can play,’” Johnson said.

For Johnson, it’s a small step forward, but it’s a step nonetheless.

Things change quickly in the NBA, you know.


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard