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Memories driving Johnson to greater heights in Detroit

The Pistons' recent trip out West was a reminder of just how far the defensive-minded forward has come in a short time

POSTED: Nov 18, 2015 12:35 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Stanley Johnson is working to establish more minutes for himself in Detroit's rotation.

The Detroit Pistons were in Phoenix for a Nov. 6 date with the Suns, some 115 miles from where Stanley Johnson starred at the University of Arizona. Days later, he was in Los Angeles for a Clippers-Lakers back-to-back (Nov. 14 and 15), about 30 miles from where he grew up (and where he was often compared to Metta World Peace as a physical, defensive-minded small forward). And so, the reminders were everywhere on the tour of the Pacific Division that ended Sunday.

Johnson was a presence in high school and college, a mega-recruit from Southern California and a lottery pick after one season in Tucson. He hung out with the Lakers long before he faced the Lakers as a close friend in high school of the son of Mike Brown, the former Lakers coach who became like a second father. He also introduced the emerging prospect to players and management. Johnson was a very big deal.

Johnson Steals and Dunks

Stanley Johnson gets the steal and finishes with the fastbreak dunk.

The returns were the backdrop to his new world, the one where he is in the rotation for a winning team, an accomplishment, but struggling to find his way. His role in Detroit has been decreasing (16 minutes each of the last two games) and his shot hasn't been falling (36.8 percent so far). There have been good moments on defense, his area of greatest potential impact, but also times when he has been lost on plays as part of the typical rookie learning curve.

"The effort's an A. A-plus," Johnson said of his defense. "I would say the technique is probably like a C-plus/B-minus. I think the technique goes up because my effort's so high. I think it's good. Better than average, for sure. But I know I can do better than what I'm doing."

Pistons Break

Stanley Johnson throws it ahead to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the layup.

He definitely knows he can do better. There is so much certainty that when asked how he compares to other rookies on defense, Johnson said: "The best." Meaning he can be the one everyone else follows.

Just not yet. Johnson, who started the season at No. 3 in the Rookie Ladder before dropping out in the third week of returns, is first working on becoming good enough to consistently get in the mid-20s in minutes. He is working on making his present look like the past with the reminders everywhere.

To this week's rankings:

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week: 1)

Towns Dimes Miller

Karl-Anthony Towns drops the nice over-the-shoulder pass to Andre Miller for the deuce.

Towns is the second player since 1997-98, along with Blake Griffin, to average 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first 10 games. Only eight have hit that mark in the last 30 years: Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Griffin and now, Towns. Decent company. He also had the run of six consecutive games with at least three blocks. Towns turned 20 on Sunday.

2. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (2)

Okafor's Turnaround Shot

Jahlil Okafor with the nice post-up or the turnaround hook.

So much for wondering when, or if, he would rebound. Okafor has grabbed 15, seven, six, 12 and 11 boards the last five games, the first time he has broken double digits twice in a row. He is averaging 10.2 rebounds in 33.1 minutes during that five-game stretch to improve to 7.6 rebounds overall, third best in the class. The first game against the Timberwolves -- Okafor vs. Towns -- is Monday in Minneapolis (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).

3. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (3)

Porzingis' Career-Best Night

Kristaps Porzingis posted a career-high 29 points in New York's win over Charlotte.

Although he joined Ewing and Robinson as just the third rookie since 1985-86 to pile up at least 80 points, 60 rebounds, nine steals and nine blocks the first seven games, Porzingis continues to search for a consistent shot. The 29 points Tuesday against the Charlotte Hornets while making 10 of 17 attempts was obviously encouraging. The minutes have also been dipping into the low-20s, before he earned 31 with the offensive outburst.

4. Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves (4)

He's 6-foot-10... and shooting 36.6 percent behind the arc, fourth among rookies, while averaging 3.7 threes per game. In the five games before the Timberwolves played at Miami on Tuesday night, the 2010 second-rounder was at 53.3 percent overall and 47.4 on 3-pointers while making few ball-handling mistakes. Between Towns' perimeter game and Bjeclica's range, Minnesota's new bigs can stretch the floor in impressive ways, creating more driving opportunities for the backcourt of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

5. T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers (5)

McConnell Feeds Okafor

Jahlil Okafor takes the pass from TJ McConnell and dunks it with one hand.

The last three outings -- 10 assists, nine turnovers -- are a red flag after the undrafted point guard from Arizona built his early reputation on dependable ball-handling. The 76ers have four games in the next six days, enough time for McConnell to either recover and prove the previous three were a temporary bad moment or to continue the bad trend and drop in the rankings. For now, he still leads all rookies in assists, is shooting 50 percent and also contributing 4.8 rebounds.

6. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat (8)

Justise Is Served

Josh McRoberts finds Justise Winslow in the post and Winslow shows off his strength to score the bucket.

Winslow was averaging a rookie-leading 9.2 minutes in the fourth quarter for a team well above .500. Try finding many better credibility boosts for a rookie, and a rookie coming off a college one-and-done at that. Winslow is 19 years old and still in a reserve role, but playing a lot of crunch time. He's at 28.7 minutes overall.

7. Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings (6)

Cauley-Stein Slam From Rondo

Rajon Rondo leave the lob pass for Willie Cauley-Stein who throws it down.

Cauley-Stein is disappearing, and not just because it's a DeMarcus Cousins world on the Sacramento frontline. (And most anywhere in Sacramento, period.) WCS has started the last four games, but while getting 22, 16 and 18 minutes before leaving after eight minutes in the last game, Sunday against the Raptors, after getting hit in the head. Now comes a five-game East coast swing, a great chance to get back to building on his good start on defense while capitalizing on the few offensive opportunities that come his way.

8. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets (7)

Fantastic Feed By Mudiay

Emmaneul Mudiay gets the deflected ball and hits JJ Hickson for the huge dunk.

Defense remains his biggest, and perhaps only, sign of stability. It's also a major reason Mudiay is ranked this high despite the jagged edges of 70 assists against 49 turnovers and 31.6 percent from the field. Being 19 and yet already able to regularly contain his man, especially given his particular lack of experience between high school and the pros, is encouraging. That's in addition to being second in assists and third in scoring.

9. Jerian Grant, New York Knicks (9)

There wasn't much talk heading into the Draft about his defense, but Grant has had some very good stretches on that side of the ball, especially on the perimeter. That keeps him on the Ladder through inconsistent shooting, from a good start into a recent slump, and a slumping assist-to-turnover ratio. The other concern is consistently dropping into the teens in minutes.

10. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets (10)

Hollis-Jefferson's Scoop Shot

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson cuts across the lane for the scoop shot layup.

He continues to play bigger than 6-foot-7. RHJ may be starting at shooting guard, but he is sixth in rebounding among rookies and had 13 boards Saturday at Golden State, and also 12th in blocks and second in steals. No Net this season has topped his 13 rebounds.

Dropped out: None.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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