Stanley Johnson speaks about his challenging but promising season

Mar 4, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson (7) controls the ball against Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas (11) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 4, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson (7) controls the ball against Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas (11) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Stanley Johnson has had a challenging sophomore season for the Detroit Pistons, but is looking forward confidently thanks to a strong performance in February.

Stanley Johnson ended last season with a crescendo, playing tough physical defense on LeBron James as the Detroit Pistons were swept in four competitive and hard-fought games by the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Johnson didn’t exactly shut James down, he forced the King to work for everything he got in the minutes they played against each other.

It didn’t reflect in the wins column, but Johnson had shown some of the physical toughness the Pistons had expected and hoped to see out of the Arizona product. Fast forward to this season, and things took a while to get on track in Johnson’s second season. He struggled mightily over the first month or so of 2016-17 to the point where he lost his spot in the rotation to Darrun Hilliard.

In the middle of December, Stan Van Gundy took advantage of a day off for the traveling Pistons and assigned the struggling Johnson (along with rookies Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije) to the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA D-League for a quick one-game stint. Over the 12 games before the D-League stint, Johnson had three DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision), a one-game suspension stemming from an undisclosed violation of team rules, and averaged a paltry 8 minutes per game when he did get on the floor.

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Johnson flourished in his quick stop in Grand Rapids as the Drive’s number one option on offense, scoring 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting, grabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists. While the D-League can’t replicate the intensity and skill level of the NBA, getting minutes in a competitive game did him wonders.

“I think it definitely helped to see the ball go in the basket and to get up and down the court. Obviously I’d never had the experience of the situation like I did at the beginning of the season, which, you know, not being able to play as much, so when you’re not playing as much, it just feels good to get on the court and get minutes and make shots like you’re used to doing,” Johnson told me when we spoke last week. “So I think when I went to Grand Rapids it gave me some flow, like just regular flow like you get during the season. But I think, for me, it was just get up and get some run in. I think it’s important for guys like me, you know, I’m only 20. I need to play, I need to get some live reps in.”

A big reason Johnson has struggled this season, particularly early on, may have resulted from having completely reworked his jump shot this past summer. While the changed form and mechanics should pay dividends, the adjustment came with its own challenges for the young Johnson.

“I feel like my jump shot has definitely improved. I think it’s better than what I’ve shown. For me the toughest thing is I don’t know when I’m gonna get my touches really in the games and some games I’m only out there for 16 or 17 minutes and you just don’t have a feel for stuff,” said Johnson. “Sometimes people don’t look into shots at the end of the shot clock (Johnson is hitting just 20 percent of his jump shots with four seconds or less on the shot clock) and stuff like that where I rush shots and they’re not really rhythm shots. And that’s fine, that happens through the season, but I feel like what I did this summer was definitely constructive. With my jumper, I think next summer we’ll just be working on being more consistent. You know, you can never shoot enough jump shots.”

This season has been a struggle for the Detroit Pistons almost across the board. A year after having one of the most productive starting lineups and a bench among the worst in the NBA, the script has flipped and the Pistons starters have weighed the team down at times while the bench keeps them afloat most nights. Johnson has been one of those vital reserves.

I asked Johnson what some of the biggest differences have been for the Pistons between last season and this season.

“Last year we were healthy all season. Everybody was healthy all season, we didn’t have any nagging injuries. Last year we ran a lot of pick and rolls and it was conducive to a lot of ball movement because teams were just trying to take away Reggie and Dre and that two-man movement so it made it a lot easier for guys like me and Marcus and KCP to shoot long threes and drive on closeouts and things like that.” Johnson went on to say, “Whereas this year we have a lot of post ups and handoffs, it’s more than just straight ball screens. I think last year our defense was a little bit better, I’m not sure what the numbers are but I thought last year our defense was a little better. And this last 15 game stretch we’ve been coming back to our game. I think we’re improving on the defensive end, I think we’re improving our team morale which is very important in the resolve of winning because the team is in a good state of mind, thinking together, we’re together on and off the court. ”

The Detroit Pistons bench in particular has surged over the past month and a half. In February, the best three-man unit in the NBA consisted of Johnson, Tobias Harris and Ish Smith, and Johnson himself appeared in three of the top 17 three-man units in the NBA.

I asked Johnson what it was about the bench, particularly himself, Harris, Smith and Aron Baynes, that had been so effective for over six weeks.

“I think we all complement each other very well. Me, Ish and Tobias, and Aron being able to screen the way he does is big. I think he’s one of the best screeners in the league and he puts you in a position where you’re playing two-on-one against a five-man. That’s why a lot of teams go over on me and Ish who are not really dribble-up shooters because with Aron when you go under the first one Aron turns around and gets you on the second one, now we’re shooting layups. Now we’re shooting 15 footers,” said Johnson. “Between me and Ish just being able to pass and find people that are open and get into the paint, I think that’s big. Whether it be Ish, Tobias, Marcus or KCP; me, Tobias, Aron, all guys that can put the ball on the floor, all get into the paint, all create, all pass. Obviously, Ish pushes the pace of the game. I know for me, being able to play in transition is huge. That’s how I’ve always played basketball, in high school, at Arizona, being able to play in the open court, which Ish always makes every possession somehow. He’s always ahead of the pack.”

While the Detroit Pistons bench has been more than able to pick up the starters, an area of concern for the team has been their performance on the second game of a back-to-back, of which the team has five remaining over the final month and a half of the season.

“Well, you know everyone has to play them. So if you say you’re tired or something like that, it’s no excuse. I will say this, it is very difficult to play the second half of a back to back, especially if you have an overtime game.” Johnson went on to say, “The longer you play the night before that the harder it is, but we gotta figure it out. The guys that play less minutes the night before have to pick up the guys that played more, whatever we gotta do. We gotta figure out how to get a couple of these games on the way out.”

As the Detroit Pistons make their way down the stretch and try to make a push for the playoffs, Johnson’s performance off the bench will continue to be vital. After the challenges presented to him earlier this season, a long period in which he didn’t have much opportunity to find a rhythm and his confidence may have been as shaken as it’s ever been in his basketball career, how comfortable is he at the NBA level at this point in his second season?

“I would say like, an analogy would be like going into college. I’m very aware of everything that’s going on. Obviously I need to work hard to get a better opportunity to show my talents better, I think that’s probably the next step. That has to do with the little things, you know the day-to-day things, that has to do with showing what you can do at a high level. That’s like the main thing in the NBA, there’s a lot of guys who are very talented, but there are not a lot of guys that can show their talent whether it be the little things, whether it be not being able to make it on time and stuff like that. So for me, doing the little things and making the most of my opportunity to show what I can do on the court. ”

Last summer was a season full of work and development for Johnson. What’s on his agenda for the coming offseason as we head into his year-21 season?

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do this summer yet. Depends on what the franchise wants you to do. I don’t really make those plans until I have to, actually, but when we figure that stuff out I’ll definitely tell everybody what I plan to do. I’m gonna play basketball though, that’s for sure. I mean, that’s what I do.”

Next: A deeper look at the Pistons point guard conundrum

While Johnson didn’t do a lot of scoring in February, he had the most impactful month of his career by far. The Detroit Pistons will need more of the same out of him if they want to solidify a playoff spot and climb up the ranks as the playoffs near.