Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy gives an overview on team's fourth day of training camp.
Auburn Hills — Stanley Johnson had high expectations heading into his second season. During an encouraging rookie season in 2015-16, Johnson was among the bright spots on a Pistons squad that made the playoffs and was projected to be one of the risers in the Eastern Conference.
Not so much. Not so fast.
For the team and for Johnson.
He had a slow start to last season, totaling six points in the first five games. There wasn’t the aggressiveness in going to the rim, or the swag that distinguished him in guarding LeBron James in the 2016 playoff series.
Things seemed to reach a low when coach Stan Van Gundy suspended him for a game in November. His minutes dipped, his relationship with Van Gundy soured and the two seemed to be butting heads constantly. After Van Gundy sat Johnson for two games in a five-game span, things came to a head.
“We had a lot of meetings … it was a very brutal conversation and it was uncomfortable for both of us,” Johnson told The Detroit News. “At the end of the day, you have two guys — I’m probably the more stubborn of the two — and I want to win and he wants to win.”
It was important to find that common ground of wanting to win. Johnson heard the whispers and chatter on social media that proclaimed him a bust. Maybe Van Gundy was being too hard on him, but his expectations of himself are probably higher.
Getting on the same page was the catalyst for a smoother relationship this year. They’re on much better terms now, with Van Gundy speaking glowingly of Johnson’s improved maturity and work ethic in the first week of training camp.
“That conversation was the start of the turning point. There has to be a consistent day-to-day trust on both sides to make me feel like every day that I’m getting better,” Johnson said. “For him to get my trust and me to get his, it has to be a consistent effort — and it starts with me.
“I’m the player and he’s my boss. It’s reciprocated and he’s been very professional — and I have as well — and I think it works out for both of us.”
As in any two-way relationship, there’s a lot of give and take, but Johnson points to that conversation as the genesis of the turnaround in their player-coach rapport.
“That’s behind us now — that’s the main thing. There’s an open line of communication,” Johnson said. “All that mattered last year was between me and Stan. It’s 100-percent better on both ends.”
Some of the onus is on Johnson, who turned 21 in May and rededicated himself this summer to honing his craft and working on all parts of his game. Aside from his well-publicized 86-point outburst in a pro-am game, Johnson also watched a lot of film and stayed in the weight room, staying committed to his fitness, which also became a question mark last season.
In the summer, Johnson was one of the leaders in working with younger players in summer league. When he returned for training camp, he made early impressions in voluntary workouts and has continued to show his increased maturity.
“He was very professional all summer and in terms of his workouts and communication with the staff,” Van Gundy said. “He’s taken a step forward to where he’s a more mature man who’s a lot easier to communicate with.”
It’s been a continual process for Van Gundy, who picked Johnson eighth overall in the 2015 draft. After only one year in college at Arizona, Johnson had the physical tools at age 19, but needed to refine his mental and physical game to prepare for the rigors of the NBA.
It came slowly.
“I don’t really give him time; you want them to have that from the minute they walk in the door,” Van Gundy said. “Sometimes it does take time; I’m just glad to see the development and maturity.
“There’s a lot of really good players who have that trait. It’s a matter of doing what you have to do — and he’s been doing a lot better at that.”
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The veteran teammates see it as well. While he’s spent most of his first two seasons taking in the newness of the NBA, Johnson appears to be in a position now to take on more of a leadership role, even among the veterans.
“Just to see Stanley’s maturation and growth at 21, he’s one of the younger statesmen, but mentally, he’s strong and just wants to win,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “He’s been vocal, tells you what he sees and he’s brutally honest. He wants to win every play and to be the best in the gym.
“He’s honestly been a player that stands out so far in my eyes in camp.”
Things are coming together at the right time for Johnson, who enters a pivotal third season. He’s eager to prove his doubters wrong — and he looks to have a big opportunity. After the Pistons traded Marcus Morris for Avery Bradley, it left a spot open at starting small forward, Johnson’s more natural position, as opposed to backup shooting guard, where he played last season.
Johnson insists that the starting role isn’t the reason for the changes; rather, it was just time.
“My approach wouldn’t have changed coming in here if we had the same guys back. If we had Kevin Durant and LeBron at (small forward) and Klay Thompson and C.J. McCollum at shooting guard, I would have come in the way I came in — trying to start and trying to play (big minutes).
“It just happened to be the year where it’s the most opportunity that I’ve had, so it’s more coincidence than anything. Everybody’s making a big story about it but players grow and get better, period.”
Van Gundy said after the Morris trade, he had a conversation with Johnson to let him know that the opportunity was there and that the expectations were the same.
“We have talked about his role and the primary part of that is his defense,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got to be a guy who goes out and locks in against really good players every night; he and Avery have to be the guys who take on the two best perimeter players every night.”
Working with Bradley
Bringing Bradley in gives Johnson a defensive mentor whom he can emulate, pairing an athletic, dynamic defensive tandem that could give the Pistons an improved wing combo.
“We definitely can be that duo. I’ve seen a young guy who is very talented and trying to figure out what exactly he does special,” Bradley said. “Stanley is a freak athlete and a very good kid. The sky is the limit for him if he’s able to listen to his teammates and Stan and challenge himself to go out and defend whoever.
“That’s my mindset; if he has that same mindset, we’ll be a good team.”
With the fences mended between Johnson and Van Gundy, there’s a better chance of that, and of getting back to the playoffs. And the groundwork was laid with their better communication.
“On both sides of things, we came in here with a clean slate,” Johnson said. “And it’s been great thus far.”