Pistons’ Johnson growing into role as solid contributor

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Sacramento — Stanley Johnson still isn’t where he’s going to be in his career. He’s made some strides, but three seasons in, he’s come further along than he was as a headstrong and uber-confident rookie.

He finished that season on an apex, going head-to-head with LeBron James in the playoff-series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and was set to have a building-block year in his second season.

It didn’t quite happen that way.

Johnson struggled in his move to playing shooting guard and didn’t make the adjustment easily. He was fined for being late to a practice and seemed to be in coach Stan Van Gundy’s doghouse for most of the year.

Things have changed a bit. He’s shown signs of improvement, but he’s still fighting with himself — just to stay healthy and to be able to contribute on a regular basis. One of the biggest issues has been back injuries the past two seasons and being able to be on the court for games.

Johnson has missed 13 games this season, which has hurt his development.

“His biggest problem is staying healthy and feeling good for long periods of time. It’s twice now where he’s hit a good stretch of games and then been out and then had trouble coming back right away,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “His development has been good and he’s been playing well, but injuries — 13 or 14 games — have come at times and he’s playing well.

“When he can get into a rhythm and playing, he’s looked much better.”

Johnson had a chance to take the reins in the starting role this season but has seemed to fit better coming off the bench. It takes a certain level of maturity to accept a secondary role with the second unit, but that’s also been one of Jackson’s biggest strides this season.

He’s posting numbers just above those of his rookie season: 8.6 points and shooting 38 percent from the field, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement — if he can stay healthy.

“I’ve learned a lot about my body this season. Now I feel good the first couple games back and I felt tight; today was the first game I felt good and was able to move and turn corners a little,” Johnson said. “Now I know what my body needs to stay healthy so hopefully, moving forward in my career, I can make the adjustments I need to make.”

He’s not ready to talk about the adjustments he’ll make this offseason, but he knows that improving his outside shot and staying consistent are two of those building blocks. Beyond that, it’s just finding a way to fit in with the existing roster, especially with the addition of Blake Griffin.

Johnson has the versatility to play multiple positions on the perimeter and even some power forward, but the improvement in his jump shot will garner him a bigger role.

“We want everybody to become a better shooter; the more shooting you can have on the floor, the better, but Stanley has other ways to impact the game too, particularly at the defensive end and on the floor,” Van Gundy said. “You can always use guys like that, but improved shooting from him would be a major boost and get him more minutes on the floor.

“What he has is versatility to play (shooting guard or either forward spot). What he needs is more consistency, particularly on the offensive end of the floor.”

The questions about his professionalism and development still linger, but Van Gundy said those are things of the past. He’s turned a new leaf and is setting an example for the younger players to emulate.

“No question — that’s been a big growth of his; he’s been very professional. He’s gotten all his work in, never late to anything,” Van Gundy said. “He’s been fantastic.”

Pistons at Suns

Tip-off: 10 p.m. Tuesday, Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix

TV/radio: FSD/WXYT 97.1

Outlook: The Suns (19-52) have the worst record in the league, having lost 23 of their last 25 games — and are vying for the best chance to get the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The Pistons haven’t won on the road since Jan. 10.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard