Stanley Johnson: The Detroit Pistons’ Small Forward of the Future

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 07: Stanley Johnson
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 07: Stanley Johnson /

On Friday morning, July 6th, the Detroit Pistons announced that Stanley Johnson would be their starting small forward for the 2017-18 season.

Well, it didn’t go down exactly like that.

On Friday, the Detroit Pistons traded their former starting small forward, Marcus Morris, to the Boston Celtics for Avery Bradley; effectively leaving the starting small forward position wide-open for Stanley Johnson.

Many fans were critical of Stanley Johnson coming out of this past season. Last year, the hype-train was rolling full steam ahead for the former No. 8 pick. After a summer spent hearing how much he had improved, it was discouraging for many fans to see his per-36 minute numbers drop in nearly every conceivable category.

However, in response to the fans who are questioning if we should have drafted Devin Booker instead, I propose that the Pistons may have simply been mishandling their asset.

Jimmy Butler Comparison

To me, the Pistons’ are at the same point with Stanley Johnson that the Chicago Bulls once faced with Jimmy Butler.

I point to an old Bleacher Report article from 2014 regarding Jimmy Butler. The article notes that Jimmy Butler’s breakout season came in 2012-13. He performed particularly well in the playoffs, shooting 40-percent on 3-pointers.

The following season, expectations for Jimmy Butler went through the roof, but his production regressed. During that season, Butler put up stats similar to what Stanley Johnson produced this last season, even shooting one percent worse on three-pointers than Stanley’s much-criticized 2016-17 season.

Instead of being reactionary, Bleacher Report instead looked deeper into why Butler may have struggled. The one big takeaway was this: Jimmy Butler excelled at small forward, and didn’t as a shooting guard. In his breakout season, injuries on the Bulls’ roster forced him into the starting small forward role. However, the following season they tried to bring him back out as a shooting guard, where he immediately struggled.

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So how might Jimmy Butler’s overwhelming success at small forward inform our opinion of Stanley Johnson’s future? First, let’s get the obvious similarities between the two out of the way: they are the exact same height (6’7″), both are at least touted to be above-average defenders, and they are of a similar weight (Johnson is actually 25 lbs heavier).

Well, it turns out they share another similarity outside of size and reputed skill: neither of them should be playing shooting guard! It turns out, per, that Stanley Johnson performed a full seven points (!) better last season, in terms of both offensive and defensive rating, when he lined up at small forward over shooting guard.

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Position-less Basketball and the Modern NBA

Now, I’m not ready to jump the gun and declare that Stanley Johnson should only play, and guard, small forwards. In fact, based on Brad Stevens’ recent comments regarding NBA positions, it’s possible that the entire concept of position-based basketball in the NBA has reached its shelf-life.

That being said, there are certain actions on the floor that a shooting guard is asked to do. Conversely, there are roles a small forward is asked to perform. Stanley Johnson is best suited for the latter. Now that the forward position is no longer a logjam for the Pistons, don’t be surprised if Stanley Johnson comes out of nowhere to become an offensive force in the diminished Eastern Conference (his defense was always solid, but can also improve).

Comments reported by Jake Chapman today from Stan Van Gundy seem to validate my assessment:

I also believe that as position-less basketball becomes the norm in the NBA, every playoff team is going to need a player like Stanley Johnson that can guard up to four positions. There is a reason the Boston Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown last year. There’s a reason they also drafted Jayson Tatum and Semi Ojeleye after him. I predict a big future for athletes like Tatum, Brown, Ojeleye who can play and defend multiple positions. Someday soon those players will become the most prized assets of NBA teams. This trend fits right into Stanley Johnson’s wheelhouse; he himself alluded that position-less basketball may be his strength.

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Pistons’ fans should look at the comparison between Stanley Johnson and Jimmy Butler and see that some players just aren’t being used in the best way to succeed.  We all know that Stanley Johnson can ball. Now it’s just up to Stan Van Gundy & Co. to figure out how to get that Jimmy Butler-level of potential out of him. I believe that Stanley Johnson is more than up for the challenge.