Stanley Johnson’s Strong February Provides Reason for Optimism

Nov 30, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) attempts to calm down forward Stanley Johnson (3) during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 116-105. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 30, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) attempts to calm down forward Stanley Johnson (3) during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 116-105. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Coming off a strong February, Stanley Johnson is emerging as a strong two-way player for the Detroit Pistons.  For Johnson, it all begins on defense.

After a rough start to his sophomore year, Stanley Johnson played the best basketball of his young career in February, bringing stability to an inconsistent Detroit Pistons team.

Back in December, Johnson struggled to even stay on the court.  His struggles culminated in a brief trip to the D-League to get some reps with the Grand Rapids Drive.  Three months later, Stanley Johnson’s struggles feel like a lifetime ago.

Johnson was a standout for the Pistons in the month of February.  With Johnson on the floor, the Pistons out-scored their opponents by 19.7 points per 100 possessions, the best of any player on the team by two full points.

Interpreting lineup data can be a bit tricky, but the stark differences between the Pistons’ performance in February when Johnson was on and off the floor is significant and a major positive sign for the young Pistons wing.

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The offense was at its best when Johnson was on the floor, scoring an outstanding 112 points per 100 possessions.  Defensively, the Pistons also performed admirably in February with Johnson on the floor, limiting opponents to just 92.2 points per 100 possessions.  That 92.2 defensive rating was the second best rating of any regular rotation member (behind only Ish Smith).

The defensive numbers may not come as a surprise, given Johnson’s reputation as a good, aggressive defender.  Offensively, though, Johnson still struggled individually in February.  Johnson put up a poor 47.6 true shooting percentage on low usage.  But, for Johnson and the Pistons, offense started on the defensive side of the ball in February.

The Pistons’ defensive rating of 92.2 with Johnson on the floor fueled an up-tempo offense that was critical for the team in February.  It was especially important because half court offense has been hard to come by all year long for the Pistons.

When Johnson was on the floor in February, the Pistons played at a pace of 99.65 possessions per game, a number that would be the 11th fastest in the league (compared to the Pistons’ 25th rank this season).

That up-tempo offense was possible because of what the Pistons did on the defensive end of the floor when Johnson was on the floor, producing the best defensive numbers in these categories of all regular rotational players.

Creating Turnovers

One of the easiest ways to create transition offense is by forcing turnovers.  In February, the Pistons did just that with Johnson on the floor.  More importantly, the Pistons forced a lot of live ball turnovers when Johnson was on the floor.  The Pistons accumulated 9.9 steals per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor, a full 1.4 steals better than they did with any other player on the floor.

That difference is critical, given that offensive possessions arising from live ball turnovers are extremely efficient.  Defenses aren’t able to set up following steals, and transition offense have a huge advantage as a result.  Stanley Johnson’s quick hands and good defensive instincts created a lot of easy offensive opportunities for the Pistons in February.

Rebounding Opponents’ Misses

Defensive rebounding is another aspect of defense that increases the efficiency of subsequent offensive possessions.

When Johnson was on the floor in February, the Pistons’ rebounded 88.4% of opponents’ misses.  By way of comparison, the Pistons’ lead the league in defensive rebounding at 80.8%.  Rebounding nearly all of opponents’ misses ensures that the subsequent offensive possessions will be as efficient as possible.  And that’s just what the Pistons did when Stanley Johnson was on the floor in February.

Stanley Johnson is a serviceable rebounder individually, but he’s even better as a team rebounder.  He consistently plays help defense in a way that maximizes his ability to rebound potential misses.  And when Johnson does grab rebounds, he makes a conscious effort to push the tempo, leading to highly efficient opportunities for the Pistons in transition.

But, there’s certainly more to team rebounding than just grabbing rebounds yourself.  Often times, good team rebounding involves recognizing when teammates are in better position than yourself and spacing the floor in a way to give teammates who are in good position an easier rebounding opportunity.  That’s something that Stanley Johnson excels at, and it’s a big reason the Pistons are such a good rebounding team with him on the floor.

An added benefit to creating that additional spacing for teammates to rebound is that it provides open passing lanes for rebounders to make outlet passes to create easier offense the other way.

Limiting Three Point Attempts

One of the benefits of the NBA’s statistical advancements has been a better understanding of what exactly constitutes good three-point defense.  The best three-point defenses suppress three-point attempts, because teams have minimal control over whether a shot goes in or not.

Seth Partnow, Director of Basketball Research for the Milwaukee Bucks, shared some additional insight into three-point defense leading to transition opportunities at this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  For years, it’s been assumed that three-point misses result in more transition opportunities because they yield longer rebounds, but Partnow explained that it’s just not true.

The concept is similar to why good defensive spacing leads to more transition opportunities: balancing the floor makes it more difficult for opponents to account for everyone.

Limiting three-point attempts is yet another aspect of defense where Stanley Johnson excels.  With Johnson on the floor in February, Pistons’ opponents attempted 22.5 three pointers per 100 possessions, the second lowest rate when any regular Pistons rotation member was on the floor.

Johnson is terrific at running opponents off the three-point line, and his quick hands and feet allow him to recover in a way where the defense doesn’t suffer following his close outs.

While Stanley Johnson’s positive impact on the offense might not always be obvious, it was undoubtedly present in the month of February, evidenced by the Pistons’ outstanding offensive rating with him on the floor.  And it all started on the defensive end of the floor.

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As he continues to develop his individual offensive skills, Johnson’s value to the team’s offense should only increase.  And, as that happens, Johnson will provide, alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, yet another great two-way wing option for the Detroit Pistons.