ORLANDO – It took Stanley Johnson a while to know what he doesn’t know.
“I’m so bullheaded when it comes to certain things,” Johnson admitted as he embarked on his third year of Summer League practices since the Pistons made him the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft. “I have to learn a lot of things.”
One he says he’s learned after a second season that failed to meet the expectations set during a most promising rookie season is a big one – a lesson that very well could unlock the breadth of his wondrous potential.
“Getting a better relationship with Coach was probably the biggest thing I took from last year. I don’t think anybody in the building thinks I’m a bad basketball player, but getting the coach’s trust is half the way to getting the coach to play you. You’ve got to get the coach’s trust before you can show your talents on the court.”
Johnson is applying his newfound perspective in the way he’s approaching his summer. By staying off the court for an extended period and working more on refining his game when he gets back on it – as opposed to dominating pickup games that satifsy his competitive urges – Johnson is adhering to the directions Van Gundy gave him after his rookie season.
He’s back at the P3 training facility in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he’s been a client since his high school days at Santa Ana Mater Dei, after steering clear of it last summer. He arrived in Orlando with his body feeling fresh and more dialed in athletically than last year.
“They do a great job with me. I think last year, athletically, I wasn’t there. Partly the reason was because I didn’t go there, so I went back this year. They said I didn’t actually lose any gain since the last time I tested, but I felt a little different. But now I feel a lot stronger, a lot more athletic. I tested before I came here and everything is about 2 inches better than I was when I walked in, every area. When I was first there, I was touching like 10-8 (in the vertical jump) and now I’m like 10-10, 10-11.”
Johnson has been doing plenty of shooting drills and working on shooting mechanics, but other than that he’s avoided live basketball until getting to Pistons Summer League, where he’ll participate in two-a-day practices but not the five-game schedule the Pistons begin on Saturday.
He pressed Van Gundy to allow him to play in Summer League and lost that case, but was green lighted to practice.
“A lot of reasons why I’m here and I’m using it as a tool to get better,” said Johnson, who turned 21 last month. “To work on team stuff – a lot of stuff we’re running here we run during the season. Work on my shooting in a game. This is a more controlled environment than it will be in the (Los Angeles-based summer) Drew League, probably some of the best run I can get in the summertime. And then work on my leadership skills. This is an opportunity for me to get better.”
Now more than two months removed from a second season that saw Johnson’s numbers decline in scoring (8.1 to 4.4), rebounds (4.2 to 2.5), shooting percentage (.375 to .353 overall, .307 to .292 from the 3-point line) and minutes played (23 to 18), Johnson has accepted Van Gundy’s advice to work smarter, not harder.
“You know what I took from it? Last summer I think I worked extremely too hard – not too hard, but too much. I’m a lot smarter with my workout now. I didn’t take a vacation last summer as in time off, but this summer I took a vacation – just a lot of running and cardio more than on the court, grinding my knees out. I still feel as fresh as I did when I first started.
“Stan is big on taking days off – it’s OK to take days off. For me, if I take a day off, somebody’s getting a day better on me. But I’m working a lot smarter and that’s going to be the first thing.”
A player volunteering the wisdom of his coach’s advice would seem inconsequential or appropriately deferential coming from practically any other player, but Johnson’s single-mindedness and certainty in his belief in the merits of his work ethic cast his newly found appreciation in a new light. Beginning to accept there’s a pool of knowledge unknown to him might be the impetus to getting a most promising NBA career back on the right course.
Johnson even left his beloved Southern California base to return to Auburn Hills for a stretch of workouts before the June draft. His communications with Van Gundy have been productive and bilateral.
“He’s my boss. I have to do my end first before he does his,” Johnson said. “I think that was the worst thing I did last year. I wasn’t the player I should have been the whole way through. We’re both good people, but more communication now between me and him. We’re kind of like kidding with it now, back and forth. We’re like texting every day. It’s a healthy relationship.”