Pistons’ Johnson aims to help himself, teammates in Orlando

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Orlando, Fla. — Though he won’t be playing in any of the games for the Pistons in the Orlando Summer League, it’s not just a vacation for Stanley Johnson.

It’s an opportunity to show the coaching staff what he’s worked on in the first part of the offseason and what he can do to help out the young team as they prepare to begin games on Saturday. As the key cog in the Pistons’ reserve group, Johnson can impart some of his wisdom and be a mentor to Henry Ellenson and first-round pick Luke Kennard.

Johnson, the third-year wing, already has been a vocal presence in practices, helping the rest of the team understand how summer league is just a sampler of what awaits in training camp and the regular season.

“In this group, Stanley is the guy who has played the most minutes, by far,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “In terms of defense, that’s Stanley’s greatest strength right now and he’s a really competitive guy and he’s starting to become more familiar with NBA situations.

“With the young guys, you’re a step behind because you’re reacting to (a situation), instead of seeing it at the start of the play and getting in position. Stanley is getting to the point where he’s ahead of the play instead of behind the play. Those are things he can help with in positioning things.”

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For Johnson, it’s a chance to help himself as well. After a promising rookie season, his production took a step back last year, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds, as his playing time slipped from 23 minutes to roughly 18 minutes.

With his offseason work, he’s been looking to show that he’s capable of being more consistent and becoming a more integral part of the offense.

“What he did is as soon as the season was over, he took some time by himself and he thought about the season he just had,” said assistant coach Bob Beyer, who is leading the summer league team. “He’s had some reflection and he’s come back and I’ve noticed a more mature Stanley Johnson, just being on time, coming in, having a plan of what he wants to do — and that’s good.

“His game is still evolving — we forget that he’s 21 years old now — and these practices are for him because it’s probably going to be the best competition he has this entire summer.”

Van Gundy still views Johnson as a valuable contributor off the bench, but he’s looking to see Johnson improve more on the offensive end, with a foundation of getting to the rim, 3-point chances and mid-range jumpers.

It’s a lot to develop in two years, but Johnson is putting in the work in the gym to make those strides.

Spending time with the summer league team, Johnson can not only contribute on the court, but get to know the front-office staff better outside the season and get a better understanding of the bigger picture.

“For me, I’m using it as a tool to get better, getting a lot of reps in the summertime. It’s not the same speed or intensity as an NBA game, but it’s the closest you’re going to get right now,” Johnson said. “You’re getting live shots and they’re putting me in situations where they can see me on the court next season. If I can do well here, I can do well in the games — that’s the thought process.

“The main thing for me is relationship building with the coaching staff and the GMs. A lot of the reason why everything has been everything is we communicate but there’s hasn’t been a healthy communication level, to the point that we have a good understanding of each other.”

In 2014, Johnson and Kennard were teammates on the USA Basketball under-18 national squad that won the gold medal and got a good feel for each other’s games.

Reunited with the Pistons, Johnson already sees how Kennard can help out with a team that struggled offensively.

“It think highly of him. He can come in right away and give us something, wherever coach Van Gundy puts him in,” Johnson said. “He’s a lot better on defense than I thought he was going to be — and he puts a lot of effort into it. He has to take and make shots.

“In the NBA, he has to realize that just a little bit of space is enough. It’s just a mental thing of turning your mind to it. If I were to wish one thing, it would be catch and fire.

“Every catch-and-shoot situation, I want him to be 100 percent shooting them, whether he’s making them or not because when Reggie (Jackson) and Andre (Drummond) get on the court, those are the shots he’s going to need to take and make for us.”