Pistons’ Stanley Johnson aims to step up his game

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Johnson averaged 4.4 points in his second season, playing mostly as the backup shooting guard behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

When the Pistons selected Stanley Johnson with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, they seemed to have their man. At 6-foot-7, he was regarded as one of the most versatile players in the draft, with the ability to play four positions on offense and guard as many positions on defense.

They bypassed some more proficient offensive players, hoping that Johnson, who played just one season at Arizona, could blossom into a significant role, with some time and seasoning.

Having finished his second season in the NBA, Johnson still has that hope, as do his teammates and Pistons president-coach Stan Van Gundy. After a promising rookie season, Johnson’s second year didn’t quite live up to the standard he set for himself, which led some to ponder — way too-prematurely — whether Johnson has devolved into a draft bust.

He averaged a pedestrian 4.4 points in an up-and-down second season, playing mostly as the backup shooting guard behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and trying to find consistent minutes. But Johnson remains steadfast in his dogged confidence and resolve to continue improving — and at just 20 years old, he’s still on the cusp of a big breakthrough in his third year.

“I don’t have any problems with my development. (Assistant coach) Bob Beyer has done a great job in teaching me how to really work out and train to be detailed,” Johnson told The News. “Stan pays a lot of attention to what I have going on, working out this summer and making sure my head is on straight. Everything in player development, they have done a fabulous job with that.”

The development has been difficult, in trying to find a niche for Johnson, an uber-athletic, do-it-all wing. But the labeling is part of the quandary in dealing with Johnson. Is he a small forward? A shooting guard? Just a player?

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The answer lies somewhere in between. He’s not just one thing and he doesn’t fit into one position, which is a credit to his versatility but also makes it difficult to plot a definite course in his development. And the solution may be different than just defining a role for Johnson simply based off the traditional positions in the lineup.

“The person that’s guarding me — that’s the position I’m playing. If there’s a bigger, stronger guy on me, I’m playing a forward position. If there’s a smaller, quicker dude on me, I’m playing a guard position,” Johnson said. “That’s how a lot of teams in the NBA use their players who are similar to me.

“Stan drafted me, so he knows what I can do and what I can be. He’ll figure it out; it’s hard to figure myself out offensively. I don’t think it was until I got to the NBA that I started working on stuff — specifically, to use my strength and my quickness and my ball skills.”

For Johnson, that’s the next step in becoming a more effective two-way player: building on his offensive skills and honing his defensive consistency. With the value Van Gundy places on defense, Johnson knows that’s the path to garnering more playing time.

More work needs to come on the offensive end, where Johnson struggled this year, hitting just 40 percent from the field and a mere 29 percent on 3-pointers.

Those aren’t shooting-guard numbers — or forward numbers, for that matter.

Therein falls another issue in trying to classify Johnson.

“I’ll never be a player where you put me in a position. If you try to put me in a position, you’ll never get the best out of me,” he said. “I can play a position, but if you just pigeonhole me in a one position the whole season and not let me run around and guard different people and play different spots, you’re not getting the player you asked for.”

Work in progress

What Van Gundy sees now and likely what he saw when he drafted Johnson are different pictures. It was apparent this season that the two were not on the same page. Johnson was suspended for a game for violating team rules. He worked for much of the early season to shed bulk and get back to an optimal playing weight.

Stan Van Gundy says Stanley Johnson “needs to base his game and build it around being an elite defender.”

It worked and he got back into Van Gundy’s good graces — and now the path forward seems to be in better focus.

“The first thing is that he needs to base his game and build it around being an elite defender in this league. He takes pride in it and he has to get better as a team defender. He needs to be a guy who can impact the game on the defense end, first and foremost, and he has to lock into that,” Van Gundy said in his season-ending news conference.

“His offensive skills have got to improve. I’ll take blame and responsibility for a lot of things in our offensive system. When you get a shot, you have to make it at a higher percentage than he’s made it and you can’t turn the ball over at the percentage he’s turned it over at. He understands that. You’ve got to take responsibility for your stuff too. (If he gets) an open shot, (he’s) got to put it in the basket.”

Although Johnson’s defense was solid, on offense is where he struggled most, as he reached double digits just seven times, compared to 26 times as a rookie. In many cases, the offensive scheme relegated Johnson to waiting in the corner and getting an open shot off a pass from the pick-and-roll or a drive to the rim.

Other times, Johnson, got to create off the dribble, where he had some turnovers, highlighting some of the areas of his game he’ll need to improve this summer. But Van Gundy realized that he wasn’t looking at Johnson as the unique player he is and utilizing those strengths in mismatches.

“I haven’t really built anything in for him and he’s a unique player, especially when he’s at the (shooting guard). There are some guys he can overpower physically and we haven’t really built anything for him to do that,” Van Gundy said.

Most of the time, when a play was called for Johnson, it was similar action to what Van Gundy called for Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris, not specifically focused on Johnson’s skill set.

No regrets on development

At the time Johnson was drafted, he looked to have a clear path to playing time in his rookie season. But the Pistons later traded for Morris and Reggie Bullock, then acquired Harris at the trade deadline. Last summer, they signed free-agent forward Jon Leuer, which made for a crowded position and the only remaining playing time for Johnson as Caldwell-Pope’s backup.

Johnson couldn’t help but notice others in the draft class, including the Suns’ Devin Booker and the Heat’s Justise Winslow — both of whom the Pistons considered drafting — and their bigger roles on losing teams.

They might be further along individually, but Johnson relishes his role on a team that’s winning more than empty minutes and stats.

“It’s just the reps of being in the game and taking the shots and knowing different things. I wasn’t deprived of the minutes; I don’t feel like I wasn’t playing, but I wasn’t playing 30 minutes either,” Johnson said. “It’s a difference between a guy like Devin Booker, who plays 33 minutes a night and getting 10 to 15 shots a night.

“He’s going to have a lot more experience and be more prepared for different things than I will be, in playing 18 to 25 minutes a night and not getting a chance to do stuff like that.”

Johnson has no regrets, though, about where he is in his development. It’s just part of the progression, no matter how long it takes.

“I don’t feel any regress at all — my numbers show that I did. How I felt on the court when I was playing minutes and in the rotation and involved in all of it, I was very useful on the court and better than I was my rookie year,” he said. “My jump shot and my form are better and now with the summer to work on getting more reps, I feel like I’ll be better than I was last year.”

And that’s where Van Gundy wants to see Johnson’s work focused this summer: making jumpers more consistently and continuing to sharpen his offensive game. Though Johnson’s defense has been good, the hope is that he will continue to improve on both ends of the court and become a bigger contributor, whether he does that work in the offseason on the summer league team or through individual reps with the Pistons coaching staff.

“Stanley needs to have a better offseason than he did last season. We talked about the progression and when to work, how to work, who to work with and what to work on,” Van Gundy said. “It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to put in the work, but I don’t think he did it in the smartest way.

“He needs to have a better offseason to develop those skills and then I think he’s capable of having a better season.”