What is holding Stanley Johnson back?


ESPN’s Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton talked about which rookies this season have the most potential moving forward. Unsurprisingly, the top two were easily Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis followed by a lot of uncertainty. Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson cracked neither of their top 10 lists. However, he briefly came up (very dismissively) in the discussion:

"Before the draft, everyone was talking about Winslow versus Stanley Johnson. Now I think the Winslow versus Hollis-Jefferson debate is the fascinating one"

Both writers not only think that Winslow is easily the superior prospect at this point but that Johnson has been passed by Arizona teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. I was very hard on the Johnson pick initially but was under the impression that he and Winslow had played to pretty nearly a draw thus far this season. And while Hollis-Jefferson has looked pretty good, I would have assumed that his lack of a shot would push him much lower on the best-prospect-moving-forward leaderboard.

So I thought I’d look a bit more at these three players and how they are stacking up to date. I tend to think that for players in the sorts of roles these three are, per-possession stats are much more relevant than per game:

SJ-JW-RHJ standard
SJ-JW-RHJ standard /

Ok, I can see the argument for Hollis-Jefferson. He’s having a very good rookie season. He’s also been the best defender of the three. And the advanced stats are even kinder to him (and less to Stanley Johnson):

SJ-JW-RHJ advanced
So Johnson is the worst defender of the three. That’s not too shocking. Defensive intensity was the primary reason I had Winslow well ahead of Johnson. And Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson were teammates last year and Rondae always took the toughest assignment. But the other big black mark on Stanley is his efficiency. He shoots a lot, but not well. But I don’t actually believe he is a worse shooter than the others, look at the free throw numbers, he is probably bogged down by the load he is shouldering. So let’s break down the shooting a bit more. Keep in mind that Winslow has played almost twice as many minutes (791) as Hollis-Jefferson (419) and has a significant lead on Johnson (678) as well. And that we run into some small sample sizes here: /
SJ-JW-RHJ shooting
The takeaway here is predominantly positive. Johnson has the skills to be every bit as good a prospect as Winslow. He may lag a bit defensively, but he has more offensive talent. But holy cow does he ever need to work on his shot selection. Those two point jumpers are terrible! And that ignores all the times that he turns the ball over when he passes up a three point look to attempt a drive halfway to the rim. We can put some blame on the Pistons’ bench being so weak that Johnson is forced to take more shots than he really should. But Winslow could bring up the same excuse, and he’s not tanking his value with a ton of low percentage attempts. And as poor as Baynes, Blake, and company play at times, they can probably absorb a bit more usage at better nominal efficiency than 29%. /

Stanley Johnson has actually converted his attempts at the rim and beyond the arc at significantly better rates than the other two. Those are the most valuable shots in the game. The problem is that he has shot more than a staggering triple the two point attempts of either of the others. And, probably because he has taken so many of those shots, he has hit them at abysmal rates. Even ignoring the value of putting opponents in foul trouble, the Pistons are 30% better off with Andre Drummond shooting free throws than with Johnson shooting a two from more than 3 feet out.

Hopefully Stan Van Gundy has noticed this same problem and is working with Johnson at improving his decision making. The Pistons have a solid prospect, but he’s not helping them right now nearly as much as he could be.