No rookie wall for Stanley Johnson – and also no limit on the 19-year-old’s ceiling

Stanley Johnson is averaging 8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in 22 minutes a game for the Pistons.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The initial reaction from opposing coaches, media, broadcasters and fans as Stanley Johnson makes the NBA rounds for the first time is almost always along these lines: “Wow, I didn’t realize he was that big.”

A Pelicans staffer said exactly that when Johnson peeled off his warmups to make his New Orleans debut last week. Denver coach Mike Malone – who has a pretty good source inside the Pistons organization in his father, Brendan Malone, Stan Van Gundy’s assistant – said pretty much the same thing before Saturday’s game there.

“The first time I saw him in person was yesterday and I couldn’t get over how big and strong he is,” Malone said. “That is a very strong, thick young man. He’s a guy, like all rookies, who has good moments and bad moments, but I know he can guard a lot of positions. He’s tough. His shot is getting better, he’s very good at getting to the basket and he does not lack any confidence. I think he’s got a very bright future ahead of him because of his ability to see both ends of the floor at his level.”

Johnson is having many more good moments than bad ones lately, though at 19 it’s striking how much growth potential remains despite the many ways he’s able to help the Pistons win games already.

Wednesday’s comeback win over Philadelphia stands as a shining example. When Pistons power forwards struggled with their matchups, Van Gundy went with a lineup that moved Marcus Morris to power forward and gave Johnson an expanded role. He responded with 18 points, two off his career high, in 32 minutes, during which time the Pistons outscored Philadelphia by 16 points – the best plus/minus on the team.

“Stanley’s been great all year,” Andre Drummond said. “He’s done a good job of coming in and being Stanley. He does a great job on defense and offensively, he’s very aggressive.”

Van Gundy is going to have something of a dilemma on his hands – a pleasant one, but a dilemma nevertheless – when Jodie Meeks returns from a broken foot. He’s easing back into practice now, starting with Sunday’s session at Utah, and could be available before the Feb. 10 rematch with Denver that leads to the All-Star break.

The only way Meeks cracks the rotation is to take minutes away from one of Van Gundy’s three other wing players – starters Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope plus Johnson, who’s been the primary backup for both since Meeks was lost to injury and Reggie Bullock couldn’t hang on to the rotation spot by sustaining his level of preseason play.

When Van Gundy was asked about the possibility of using Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings together in the backcourt last week, he said, “I haven’t had that much need, as well as both Pope and Stanley are playing. It’s in the back of my mind, but not in the front of my mind the way those guys are playing.”

Johnson’s improvement has come incrementally in pretty much every area. On offense, he’s become much more judicious in attacking the basket and making the right play – either finding a shot for himself, dumping it off to a big man inside or reversing the ball to an open 3-point shooter. He’s got a high ceiling as a scorer but also shows real playmaking flair. He’s also a hard-charging dynamo in transition, often taking the ball end to end after defensive rebounds.

And on defense, Johnson has become more reliable when he’s not guarding the ball and better at executing complex assignments.

“He’s getting better,” Van Gundy said. “His awareness is getting better. He’s a smart kid. If you go in and do stuff on film or in a walk-through or on the board, he knows what he’s supposed to do. Now it’s gaining the experience to be able to focus on those things and react in the course of a game.”

Johnson’s self-confidence is boundless, so you won’t get anywhere asking him if his increasing successes have boosted his belief in himself. But he’ll admit there’s a growing comfort level as he checks off any number of first-time NBA experiences.

“You’re just familiar with everything,” he said. “You see stuff every game. As you get better, you start noticing coverages and stuff you can exploit as a player. As that happens, you just starting playing, start reacting more.”

Johnson likes the way Van Gundy uses him at both perimeter positions, feeling he has a size-strength edge on most shooting guards and a quickness edge on many small forwards. He’s learning how to use his strength more to his advantage and anticipates becoming even stronger as he gets into a year-round weight-lifting program for the first time.

“You last longer. Your legs get stronger,” he said of what he anticipates happening as he begins to push his limits in the weight room. “Stuff you can do in the first quarter you can do in the fourth quarter with the same explosiveness. You’re different when you’re fresh, so being fresh all the time is an advantage for me. I’m able to cut and run the same speed in the fourth quarter as the first.”

Johnson, more than midway through his rookie season, says he hasn’t yet felt the effects of what veterans have warned him about.

“Rookie wall? What’s that? I didn’t know there was a rookie wall,” he said. “I’m not really a high-minutes guy so I don’t have those problems. I probably played 38 out of 40 minutes last year (at Arizona), so playing the majority of the load it’s almost harder to play the college schedule. But playing 20 minutes a game here, some nights less, it’s not hard to get ready to play. I’m still 19 years old and it’s all new to me.”

So: Good news for the Pistons that Stanley Johnson doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a rookie wall. Bad news for the rest of the NBA that the Pistons rookie also doesn’t believe there is any limit on his ceiling.