Camp questions: How big a jump can Stanley Johnson take in year two?

Stanley Johnson is coming off a promising rookie season and poised for more with the Pistons.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: continues a five-part series examining the top five storylines of training camp, which gets under way later this month. Today: How much bigger a role is Stanley Johnson ready to handle?)

Thirty years ago, the Pistons finally had a young nucleus in place they believed would vault the franchise to heights it had never known since relocating from Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1957.

They entered training camp 1986 under a widely respected coach, Chuck Daly, with one dynamic young veteran All-Star, Isiah Thomas, leading a group bristling with promise. The holdovers included Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars. They’d swung a trade for a proven veteran in Adrian Dantley. They had depth and role players.

They also had two rookies they weren’t depending on but felt had potential that, if realized, would alter the fabric of the team and pose a different level of threat to the conference’s heavyweights, starting with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.

John Salley and Dennis Rodman came to be known as the X-factor of the team not yet christened the Bad Boys.

Salley was 22 and a veteran of four years at Georgia Tech, Rodman 25 after an unbelievably circuitous route to the NBA.

So the parallels aren’t perfect, but Stanley Johnson – at 20 and entering his second NBA season – is to this edition of the Pistons, under a coach not unlike Daly in his abilities to juggle personalities and fit puzzle pieces together, Stan Van Gundy, as Rodman and Salley were to the burgeoning Bad Boys.

Andre Drummond is the Thomas analog, now a four-year veteran though still only 23. With Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all returning as starters, Van Gundy doesn’t need to force feed anything upon Johnson he’s not ready to handle.

Van Gundy admits that Johnson presents a coaching challenge for his boundless confidence that sometimes verges on stubbornness, but he’s also aware that quality is inexorably linked to the traits that make Johnson such a unique and valued asset.

Folks who’ve followed Johnson since his days as a teen star on USA Basketball’s national teams – he won gold medals in three age-group world tournaments representing the United States – are convinced he’s got NBA star potential. Van Gundy cites his competitive drive as at the highest levels he’s encountered.

Johnson spent his off-season diligently working on raising his skill level to match his athleticism and competitiveness. Dribbling with his left hand, honing his footwork and ironing out mechanical flaws in his shooting stroke were the bullet points on his to-do list. Van Gundy saw him tackling those issues with the same fervor that marks his play.

How much can those qualities be improved in one off-season? Therein lies the key to answering how much greater impact Johnson can have in season two than he had as a rookie, when he averaged 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 23 minutes a game.

Johnson played his best basketball last season from January until suffering a shoulder injury in late February that cost him seven games and stunted his progress. In nine February games, including four starts when Caldwell-Pope was hurt, Johnson averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds. Van Gundy believes he has every physical tool and the mindset to become an elite defender at multiple positions.

Johnson flashed his potential in pick-and-roll situations, developing nice chemistry with backup center Aron Baynes, before the injury. The playoffs – not even the daunting task of guarding LeBron James much of his time on the floor – didn’t overwhelm him. When the season ended, he spoke openly about not understanding how to prepare for the NBA’s relentless schedule until late in his rookie season and vowed to come back a more studious player in his second year.

All of those things bode well for Johnson’s readiness to continue his career ascent and meet the outsized expectations that have followed him since winning a state title as a freshman starter at California prep power Mater Dei in Orange County.

There’s a chance Van Gundy considers Johnson for a starting assignment if he believes it will help strike a better balance between the first and second units. But the likelihood remains that he’ll be the team’s sixth man and used more frequently as a defensive stopper who perhaps will sometimes finish games on that skill alone.

It might be too soon to expect a huge spike in production from Johnson. And the Pistons will be OK without such an uptick. Everyone else on the roster is also either in the midst of or approaching their prime years, so internal improvement should be the expectation across the board. But Johnson, as Van Gundy has noted, has more potential to take a big leap than anyone on the roster besides Drummond. And if that happens, the analogy between this Pistons team and their predecessors from three decades ago will grow that much stronger.