Johnson gets SVG’s message and puts it into action in Pistons win at OKC

Stanley Johnson’s hip flexor has caused him to miss eight of the past nine games and there’s no certainty when he’ll be fully healthy.
Layne Murdoch (NBAE/Getty)

OKLAHOMA CITY – Stanley Johnson is the only true small forward on his roster and Stan Van Gundy sees elite defensive potential in him. So he starts with a pretty wide berth. But it’s not boundless. And Van Gundy admits the way Johnson began the season and the way he returned from a three-game injury absence was pushing those boundaries.

“I talked to him at practice on Wednesday and said, ‘I haven’t said much to you. You’ve been back three games. It takes time. But we need more,’ ” Van Gundy said after Friday’s 99-98 win at Oklahoma City. “I was getting to that point of, like, we’ve got to get something out of him or find something else. And he went out and played a really good game.”

And he did it at both ends, knocking down 3 of 5 3-point shots in an 11-point game with five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. But the more important contribution came at the defensive end, where Johnson mostly guarded Paul George – a flat-out Pistons killer during his time in Indiana – and sometimes found himself on Carmelo Anthony.

George finished with 16 and Anthony with 20 but they launched a combined 41 shots. George’s overall impact was muted, as well, as he was held to just two rebounds and two assists.

“He’s getting better. He’s getting smarter. He’s getting more confident,” Reggie Jackson said of Johnson, in his first year as a starter at 21. “He’s starting to become, to me, similar to the Draymond (Green) role. He really gets us fired up. He’s really becoming a leader for us defensively and he’s making things tough. Came up with some big stops at the end. I’m happy he’s coming into his own and has found success.”

Johnson started the season with a 0 for 13 shooting performance, though Van Gundy thought enough of his various other contributions that he played 40 minutes in the opening-night win over Charlotte. He looked like he’d turned a corner when the Pistons won back-to-back road games over the Clippers and Warriors, starting a five-game stretch in which Johnson averaged 10 points and shot nearly 50 percent from the 3-point line.

But then a preseason back injury and a hip flexor knocked him out of the lineup and after a 10-day absence he appeared rusty, going for five points, four rebounds and zero assists in his first two starts.

“I’ve never played well off an injury,” Johnson said. “When I hurt my shoulder (as a rookie), I went the next three games without making any shots. I don’t base my game off made shots and missed shots. It’s the right shots and defending. When I can defend and get in transition and get stops, that’s when I play well.”

Johnson admits he’s been a headstrong player in the past who’s needed to experience failure before accepting coaching, but his growth has included a more open-minded approach.

“Mentally, understanding people and making life easier for me, which makes basketball easier,” he said of his ongoing maturation. “I just understand stuff and keep going through it and running into the wall a couple times and now I get that the wall is there.”

Van Gundy has options, even though there’s no single player who embodies Johnson’s physical traits and defensive potential at small forward. Reggie Bullock started the three games in his absence, all Pistons wins, and rookie Luke Kennard has begun to hit his stride, as well. In fact, over the first half of Friday’s rousing fourth quarter, Kennard found himself matched up for a stretch against George.

“We needed to give somebody a rest and so if you’re going to be out there, you’ve got to guard somebody,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t know that I want a steady diet of a rookie playing a perennial All-Star, but it’s good that he gets some challenges like that for his growth.”

“People underestimate Luke,” Johnson said. “He’ll hit a couple threes in your face and deflect the ball. As he matures as a player, you’ll see more from him. He has really good floor game and once he understands the defensive responsibilities a little more, you’ll see him out there a little more.”

They’re almost the same age – Johnson will be 22 in May, Kennard a month later – even though Johnson has two NBA seasons more under his belt. And his teammates expect the same incremental improvement still ahead for Johnson as he sees coming from Kennard.

“He’s still improving. He’s still developing his shot,” Jackson said. “He puts in a lot of work and he has a lot of trust in himself, a lot of confidence. Everybody in this locker room has a lot of confidence in him. I’m just happy, so excited for him, that he’s starting to come into his own and playing really well.”