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Pistons’ Johnson shapes up, shows improvement

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Boston — Following the Pistons’ practice on Sunday afternoon, Stanley Johnson stood in the hallway of a local sports club with his shirt off while talking to media members.

He didn’t seem to be intentionally showing off his frame, but very well could have been, with his T-shirt on top of his head. But even if he were, he might have earned the right to.

Johnson has shed about 15 pounds and might be in the best playing shape of his career — and that new physique is leading to him playing some of the best basketball in years.

“I weighed in at 232 today — and that’s light,” Johnson admitted. “I’m on a different diet right now.”

It’s been an ongoing regimen for Johnson, who frequently has been doing extra work after games to try to improve his endurance and keep the pounds off. The difference is showing in his quickness on the court, both on the defensive end and on offense, where he’s been more like the two-way guard the Pistons thought they were getting with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

In the last seven games, he’s shooting 8-of-12 from 3-point range and 67 percent from the field (22-of-33 overall), posting 7.4 points. The bigger contribution is on the defensive end, where he’s steadily improving — and just growing from his work in the practice gym with assistant coach Bob Beyer.

“He’s starting to play better — there’s no question; I like what he is doing,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The two things to me are he’s gotten in shape — which he wasn’t to start the year — and he’s gotten much more coachable.

“He’s listening more to Bob and the other coaches and learning and trying to do things. That’s been the reason he’s been a lot better.”

Johnson, 20, has been through an up-and-down second year after opening some eyes with an impressive rookie season. He hasn’t had as many minutes and part of the issue is his weight, which has fluctuated.

That extra bulk made him slower and he plodded along on defense in trying to guard quicker defenders. But in the past couple of months, he’s lost the weight and has been committed to keeping it off.

Johnson plays many of the minutes at backup shooting guard, behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and there’s plenty he can emulate, both on and off the court.

But there are limits.

With his bigger, bulkier frame, Johnson has to watch what he eats and continue to exercise to keep his weight manageable, so he maintain his own quickness and speed.

“You just have to understand that and take care of it. He’s been much more professional about that and right now, we’re starting to see the type of basketball player he can become,” Van Gundy said. “The last few games, he’s played better than he did a year ago. He’s playing more solid basketball, but still a long way to go and he’s got to sustain it, but it’s a lot better.”

In this up-and-down season, the key for Johnson has been focusing on improving and not worrying about the results on the court. Though his playing time dwindled, his confidence never did, which he said is due to some advice he got from a family friend, former All-Star and current TNT analyst Kenny Smith.

“(He) told me a long time ago: you have to find your place of refuge, your place where you’re at peace. Sometimes, when peace of mind is in the game, it’s hard to keep yourself maintained if you’re not playing well and you’re not getting the minutes you expected,” Johnson said. “When I switched my place of refuge to the practice court and getting better and working on my body (it helped).”

Johnson said he didn’t realize he had gotten heavier or he was a bit slower than he usually is. But with the extra work with the coaching staff after practice and after games, he was able to manage it all.

“How I gauge how fast I’m moving is if I can stay in front of people. I didn’t notice it and once he pointed it out to me, I went back and looked at my body composition from rookie year and at Arizona and thought I might be a little big right now.”

Van Gundy lauded Johnson’s defense on Goran Dragic in Saturday night’s loss to the Heat, but it’s more important to look at the big picture than just focusing on short-term gains.

Johnson is making strides in both areas, and that’s good enough for Stanley — and Stan.

“Me and Stan don’t talk a lot but we understand each other,” Johnson said. “What’s understood doesn’t need to be discussed. I know what he expects from me and he knows what I expect of him.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @RodBeard

Pistons at Celtics

Tip-off : 8 tonight, TD Garden, Boston

TV/radio : TNT/105.1

Outlook : The Celtics (29-18) have won three straight behind Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 32 points over that span. The Pistons won the first meeting at Boston, 121-114, on Nov. 30.