Auburn Hills — Stanley Johnson recounts the words like a daily affirmation.
Elite defender. Playmaker. Three-point shooter. Great teammate.
Johnson cracks a smile as he rattles off each of the bullet points from a “role card” that Pistons coach Dwane Casey gave each player during training camp.
In Casey’s first season, it was a way to lay a framework and set expectations for each player, by citing their strengths.
After struggling to find a defined role and consistent production in his first three seasons in the NBA under Stan Van Gundy, Johnson saw the role card as a revelation, distilling his seemingly boundless potential into a manageable set of expectations.
“In past years, I wanted to do so many things on the court, especially a guy like me who’s not really great at anything, but good at a lot of things,” Johnson told The Detroit News. “You want to do everything and sometimes that’s not what’s best for you — in general, and for our team. Having the card made everybody understand what role they’re in.”
After being selected eighth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, Johnson had a promising rookie season, but has struggled to get back to that level. Seeing his strengths on the card was an immediate return to normalcy and a confidence boost, all in one.
“For my first three years, it was the first time I have not had a role card or some situation where a coach sits down and says, ‘You do this.’” Johnson said. “As a young player, I didn’t know any different and it was my first time with an NBA coach and you don’t know how the NBA works.”
In his second season, Johnson was a valuable sixth man and started 50 games last season, but he hadn’t come close to the consistency needed to break through and make a bigger impact. Some of it was due to a two-way, hot-and-cold relationship with Van Gundy. After a mistake, Johnson would reflexively look toward the bench, bracing for a scolding from the coach.
It led to a rough couple of seasons for Johnson, who wasn’t developing because he didn’t have a clear picture of what that road looked like. He didn’t have a clearly defined role, which made it harder to focus on improving.
With Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson now as go-to guys, the roles are clearer, which has allowed Johnson to settle in as a super sub.
“Yeah, I can’t lie. I only know through experience now that it was confusing. In the moment in time, I wasn’t confused at all; you’re just playing basketball,” Johnson said. “We all had our roles, but now it’s definite: Blake and Reggie are our closers, so at the end of the game, give the ball to one of those two. I know they’re going to do what they do and it’s easier to play.
“It also gives you confidence because the coach is telling you that this is what you do better than most people in the NBA. It wouldn’t be on there if you weren’t good at it. He’s not making you do a weakness or put people in bad positions. It’s what he believes you can do and it gives you a sense of confidence and a sense of clarity.
'Not trying to do too much'
Things got murky for Johnson at the beginning of this season. He earned the starting spot ahead of Glenn Robinson III but he had one of the worst stretches of his career, scoring in double figures in just two of his first seven games. He looked lost, and in the midst of the Pistons’ five-game losing streak, Casey moved Johnson to the bench.
Making that change can be a difficult conversation, but it went surprisingly smoothly.
“It wasn’t tough. He knows it’s for the betterment of the team and he accepted it from that standpoint. For Stanley individually, it opens things up and gives him more options to his game,” Casey said. “He’s embraced it with that (second) unit and helped develop a pride and as a unit, they’re going to get it done. He’s an excellent example of accepting and embracing his role and being an MVP in that role.
“He’s not trying to do too much and letting the game come to him. Good things happen when you allow things to come to you.”
Since the switch, things have clicked for Johnson. Through an 11-game stretch, he averaged 12.6 points and 4.5 rebounds — and one of his biggest weaknesses, 3-point shooting, bumped up to 36 percent. The Pistons went 9-2 in that span, including wins over the Raptors, Rockets and Warriors.
“That’s an overlooked thing this season for us. Not a lot of guys accept that role as willingly and as gracefully as he has,” Griffin said. “It shows his maturity as a player and I’ve been very impressed with his poise throughout this whole process.”
At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Johnson is a physical specimen, able to defend three or four positions. As the Pistons’ best perimeter defender, he excels in his versatility to guard many different types of players.
In the Pistons’ last three games, he’s helped defend Kevin Durant, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo. None got above his scoring average.
“He’s a rare breed in that sense, a guy who’s quick enough to stay with the faster guys and strong enough to stay with the bigger guys,” Griffin said. “He has the right combination to pick which strength to use, depending on the matchup...
“Sometimes, you have to have that poise and ability to see that in the flow of the game and not get caught up and start giving up stuff you don’t want to give up.”
'Much room for improvement'
The smooth stretch is a renaissance for Johnson, as he looks to build on the consistent streak. It’s a departure from his summer in California when he questioned which direction his career was heading.
“I went home and said, ‘What’s going on with me?’ Some things just didn’t make sense but at the same time, I know where my work ethic is and what I can do if I get in the gym and work at things,” Johnson said. “I do think I’m doing good things and bringing good energy to the games but if I gave myself a grade, it wouldn’t be an A or B — (maybe) a B-minus or a C. There’s so much room for improvement.”
The turnaround for Johnson is refreshing, but he knows it means very little unless he can string together longer stretches of high-level play on both ends of the court.
That’s been the knock on him since his rookie season and Johnson doesn’t shy away from the criticism, whether it’s on social media or fans he meets. He doesn’t get the popular notion that the Pistons should give up on him, because he’s so young and still has plenty of room to develop.
“I never understand that. I don’t pay attention to it," Johnson said. "Look at the better players in the NBA and how I would match up with those players. ... It’s early and guys are coming in the league at 21 or 22. I’m four years in at 22.
“I just don’t get it. Are you really watching or just going along with what people are saying? Is that really your opinion? I don’t have hate because that’s the beauty of being a fan — one day you can be like this and the next you can change your mind.”
Johnson is changing some minds with his play during this stretch, but he knows there’s much more work to do.
The answer is all in the cards.