In a Make-or-Break Season, Stanley Johnson Finally Being Put in Position to Thrive

    It’s a make-or-break season for Pistons SF Stanley Johnson. The eighth overall pick from the 2015 draft will head towards restricted free agency this

    October 20, 2018

    It’s a make-or-break season for Pistons SF Stanley Johnson.

    The eighth overall pick from the 2015 draft will head towards restricted free agency this summer with the hope he can make up for three underwhelming seasons in Detroit. Johnson failed to secure a long-term extension and will have to boost his value this year.

    Johnson was considered the ideal “3-and-D” wing player coming out of Arizona. He shot 37 percent from 3-point range and posted an impressive 87.6 defensive rating. The defense has remained a strength, with Johnson averaging a 106 defensive rating across his three seasons.

    His offense is another story.

    Johnson has shot 37 percent from the floor and 29.5 percent from deep in his career. He’s started just 57 out of the 219 games he’s played, in part, for this reason. Under Stan Van Gundy, Johnson was fed a healthy diet of 3s despite his poor percentages. 39 percent of his career shots came from behind the arc. Johnson also played exclusively at either the shooting guard or small forward spot, making it harder for him to navigate to the basket.

    Under Van Gundy, Johnson was routinely put in a position to fail.

    The Pistons let Van Gundy go at the end of last season. When reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey became available in the offseason, Detroit immediately scooped him up. And while this move won’t guarantee Johnson finds success, it will put him in a better position to succeed.

    DeMar DeRozan was known as a midrange chucker in Toronto. He shot the ball well from those spots, but it limited Toronto’s offense against stiffer defenses in postseason play. Casey recognized this and retooled DeRozan’s fit in one season. Take a look at DeRozan’s shot distribution from 2016-17 to last season.

    DeMar DeRozan % of FGA by Distance

    0-3 FT 3-10 FT 10-16 FT 16 FT-3PT 3PT
    2016-17 .158 .216 .236 .310 .080
    2017-18 .199 .168 .243 .186 .203


    Casey shifted DeRozan’s long midrange attempts into three-point shots and got him more opportunities closer to the hoop in an effort to elevate Toronto’s offense. And while a jump in offensive rating from 112.3 to 113.8 might not seem major, it resulted in eight additional wins for a 51-win squad. The Raptors succumbed to what seemed like mostly mental pressure in the playoffs, but their offense got better last season in part because of Casey’s adjustment.

    The Pistons hope Casey can bring a similar transformation to Johnson’s game, starting with his position. Due to Griffin’s ability as a ball handler and floor spacer, Johnson should be able to operate closer to the basket even when Casey has Griffin and Andre Drummond in the game.

    The more likely scenario, though, will be Johnson playing alongside Griffin in a small-ball frontcourt. According to’s lineup metrics from last season, Griffin and Johnson played 453 minutes together for a 4.7 net rating. Griffin and Drummond played 594 minutes together for a 1.7 net rating. Couple that difference with Drummond’s disastrous free-throwing shooting and the Pistons will likely be running Johnson and Griffin in the frontcourt in critical moments.

    “He’s a great physical specimen,” Casey told Stadium when asked about Johnson’s versatility. “He can switch [one through four].” Casey said Johnson will spend time at multiple positions.

    “I’m definitely big enough and I want to,” Johnson said when asked about playing power forward. “When I was drafted, that was the understanding, that I was going to play multiple positions. I think it’s a way that I’ll be able to express myself on the court a little better.”

    Johnson will get more shots closer to the basket when he plays significant time at power forward, which should help his field goal percentage tremendously. It should also eliminate a good chunk of his three-point attempts. Detroit’s offense was 19th in offensive rating and 22nd in points per game last season. If Johnson benefits from the changes, the Pistons will see improvement in both metrics. Casey said he hasn’t worked on anything specific with Johnson during the offseason and won’t stress his shooting performance.

    “I don’t want to get caught up in, ‘Stanley has to be an efficient shooter,’” Casey said. “He has the green light. [I] never tell him not to shoot, but, ‘Don’t get caught up in makes or misses, there’s other things you can do to help us win.’”

    Casey said he thought Johnson’s most efficient performance in the preseason came in a 129-110 win over Cleveland. Johnson went 2-4 from the floor and had five points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks. It’s clear Casey wants Johnson to be a well-rounded player rather heaving recklessly from the perimeter. Johnson said scoring should come more easily once he gets acclimated to Casey’s system.

    “I think with his system, it’s a lot more free, a lot more spacing on the court,” Johnson said. “I’m primarily a slasher. With the spacing on the court now, even if you play off me, there’s so much space out there. I have 15 feet in each gap where before it wasn’t like that.”

    Detroit was four games away from the final playoff spot last year, and Griffin’s acquisition gives the team limited spending flexibility for the next two seasons. This means any improvement will likely have to come from within, and it’ll start with Johnson making a jump in what equates to a contract season.

    Johnson’s offense will be the focus of the year, but Casey says there are many ways he will make an impact.

    “Like I told Stanley, offense is just one phase of the game that you affect winning,” Casey said. “You affect winning by rebounding, you affect winning by defense, you affect winning by passing the ball, you can affect winning by screening. There are so many other areas where Stanley can affect the game other than shooting.”

    For likely the first time in his NBA career, Johnson will be in the right role.

    “For me to be able to take advantage of some of my strengths at this point is really positive,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, our team can get a few more wins through it.”

    If Johnson can improve on the offensive end under Casey and his defense holds, the Pistons should find themselves in the postseason and Johnson will be in line for a big contract this summer.


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