Even though he wasn’t expected to take a major role right away, it’s tough to argue that Stanley Johnson’s second year with the Detroit Pistons has been anything but disappointing.
Coming out of the University of Arizona after just one collegiate season, Johnson’s scouting report described a player with an NBA-ready body and defensive acumen, but also one who would need major work on his offensive game and jump shot to produce at the highest level.
The 2015 eighth overall pick put forth an understandably raw rookie year, with per-game averages of 8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 23.1 minutes per game. Of course, Johnson’s weaknesses shone through as well, shooting just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from three. As he was just 19 years old at the time, the general consensus was that patience would be needed as the young wing took steps to improve his game.
Fast forward to today, and patience is wearing thin.
Johnson’s basic numbers are down to 3.7 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game, while his minutes have also decreased to 14.6 per contest. Given that he faces virtually the same competition for minutes as he did last season, the reduction in playing time becomes even more indicative of struggle on Johnson’s part.
The Pistons haven’t added any talent to their depth chart that would take minutes away from Johnson. In fact, his main competition in Reggie Bullock has appeared in just four games this year due to injuries, so there could be even less court time available going forward.
Although his reputation as a lockdown defender might lead you to believe that Johnson would have an immediate impact on the point-preventing end, he actually had a fairly average rookie season, posting a negligible box plus-minus and a defensive rating of 106 very close to the team’s overall mark of 105.5.
This season, however, Johnson’s defense has improved to where it can be considered an asset to his team. Among small forwards, he ranks 23rd in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus with 0.55, up from -0.78 last season. Within six feet of the basket, opponents are shooting just 40 percent against Johnson, a whopping 20-point difference from their usual split at that distance.
At 6’7” and 245 pounds, the sophomore has the size and strength to defend from 2-to-4, with the ability to function as a small-ball power forward if needed.
Much of defense at the NBA level is mental, so Johnson’s performance combined with his lack of experience so far means his ceiling in this area is high. On the offensive side of things, there hasn’t been as much, if any, improvement. The main knock on Johnson’s game has always been his lack of outside shooting ability, and even with an offseason to work, his percentages haven’t gone up. Stanley shoots just 27 percent from behind the arc and only 29 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. On “wide open” attempts from deep (no defender within six feet), he hits just 25.9 percent of his attempts. His form has no visible hitch, so it looks as if simple repetition and gym time could bring the numbers up.
Putting his jumper troubles aside, most of Johnson’s offense comes around the hoop, where he shoots an average 53 percent. Despite not being a great passer or possessing exceptional ball handling skills, Johnson does rank in the 70th percentile of pick-and-roll orchestrators at 0.9 points per possession.
Altogether, Johnson’s game is still an overall negative for the Pistons; his net rating of -5.0 puts him fourth-lowest on the roster and the team scores 6.5 more points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor. More concerning than his production, or lack thereof, has been Johnson’s dynamic with Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. SVG and Johnson have clashed at times this season due to the player’s supposed work ethic issues - a dispute most likely centered around the reduction in playing time. Johnson’s game will need work, but he must ensure that he is trusted by his teammates and coaching staff if he has any hope of making it in the NBA.
With just 104 career games under his belt, Stanley Johnson has ample time to turn himself into a valued asset for his team. For now, though, things don’t look good.