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Pistons’ Johnson making halting but definite progress

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Toronto — Even after the regular practice session had ended and almost all of the other Pistons players had scattered, Stanley Johnson stuck around, his sweat-soaked shirt showing the badge for the extra labor he had put in.

Assistant coach Bob Beyer fed him passes and Johnson put up jump shot after jump shot, some clanging off the iron, but more swishing the nets.

Then came one bad miss.

Johnson, 20, was frustrated with himself.

Beyer reminded Johnson of his foot placement and prodded him to go again.

Plant. Shot. Swish.

It’s a constant work in progress for Johnson, reaching for the must-have next level of his offense. Johnson is augmenting his all-too-often drives to the rim of his rookie season with a mid-range game that will add some versatility to his game and help him take the step forward in his second season that so many had projected from the brimming anticipation of his rookie year.

It’s been slow to come along — but it’s days like this one that are the rungs to the ladder of improvement. These are days with dozens of misses, but the scores of makes more than make up for the frustration and provide that glimmer of hope.

“He’s gotten a lot better at making plays in there. The challenge in the paint is getting to shots and finishing more consistently, which will draw more people to him and open up more plays,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He’s gotten a lot better on his pull-up jumper and making plays.

“Now, it’s a work in progress extending his range. He’s shot the corner 3 well all year, but he’s got to do a better job on his long 3 and his finishes.”

A look at Johnson’s stats show that he’s only scored in double figures three times this season — only once since early November — and he’s not as aggressive on the offensive end. He’s averaging just 4.2 points, down sharply from last year’s 8.1.

But that quick glance can be a bit deceptive. A deeper delve shows that he’s playing about 6 1/2 fewer minutes per game and although his overall field-goal percentage is about the same (39 percent), his percentage inside the arc is up about four percentage points.

He had his struggles this season, but looking away from the stats and using the eye test, Johnson is a different player now. It’s a more-rounded version, more dangerous in passing the ball for an assist or just connecting the offense and what Van Gundy calls “making the right plays.”

It’s been somewhat at the expense of his own game, but Johnson knows it’s a necessary step.

“I just have to figure out a way to play my game within the system. Offensively, it’s a little tougher for me,” Johnson said. “Even last year, I feel like I found more shots within the system.”

In the Pistons’ win over the 76ers last week, Johnson had eight points while shooting 3-for-9, but missed a couple shots. In retrospect, he realized that the defense was playing him a bit differently than he recalled.

Instead of playing him to drive all the way to the basket, the Sixers seemed to concede the lane and play him for the pass, likely studying game video and predicting his new-look game.

Now, it’s on him to make the next adjustment and make himself more of an offensive threat, with a polished mid-range game that has a dependable pull-up shot.

“We’re working on consistency with footwork and touch. Everything we do is simulating a game; it might not be the shots I shoot, but the footwork I’d need if a certain shot is available,” Johnson said. “I’m a player who can do a lot of things; if you put me on any team, I can figure out a way to help.

“My biggest strengths are attacking the rim, shooting open 3s and playing transition and defending on the ball. I can find a way to be effective in games.”

He’ll add a bit more with some more work in the gym.

Pistons at Raptors

Tip-off: 6 Sunday, Air Canada Centre, Toronto

TV/radio: FSD/WMGC

Outlook: The Raptors (32-22) have slumped a bit, losing nine of their last 13 games. That’s dropped them from the No. 2 spot in the East to fourth. The All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan (27.9 points) and Kyle Lowry (23 points) is one of the best duos in the league.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard