Stan takes Stanley: Johnson a big part of Pistons puzzle at small forward

The Pistons added Stanley Johnson with the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft, the first for Brian Wright as Pistons assistant general manager.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Stanley, meet Stan.

Stan Van Gundy made his first lottery pick – and last, he hopes – and grabbed Stanley Johnson over the other players grouped with him on the Pistons draft board, including Duke’s Justise Winslow and Kentucky’s Devin Booker.

“We thought he was the best player on the board,” Van Gundy said. “That’s the simple answer.”

The Pistons went into draft night with a gaping hole at small forward and Johnson figures to be a big part of filling it. They’ll still have nearly $19 million in cap space and Van Gundy has said he anticipates finding his starter in free agency, but Johnson will be given every opportunity to compete for the starting job in training camp.

And competition is one area where Johnson draws the highest marks.

“I’m a guy who’s going to bring a lot to the table,” Johnson said via conference call from New York, where he attended the draft at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. “I should be able to produce right away. Coach Van Gundy wants me to compete. He wants me to be the dog like I am. He wants you to bring competitive energy vs. LeBron and vs. anybody else. I’m ready to compete against the high-level wings.”

“We needed a little more physicality, guys that would get into people,” Van Gundy said. “I think he’s got a chance to be a very, very, very good defender. I think he’s the kind of guy that will not back away, even as a rookie. I couldn’t like his mentality and the way he approaches the game more than I do.”

In fact, he brings a little of almost everything Van Gundy values in players beyond that wide competitive streak, including physical toughness, good size for his position and a motor that gets universal high marks. Though his shot has been questioned and undoubtedly will need time to develop – as is the case with almost all rookies – Johnson did shoot 37 percent from the 3-point line as an Arizona freshman.

“I think Stanley’s going to be a really good shooter,” Van Gundy said. “He’s going to evolve. It’s going to take some time – there’s a few corrections we need to make – but when you look at his release and the rotation on the ball and the most important thing, the fact that it actually goes in at a pretty good percentage, he’s a pretty good shooter.”

Johnson’s winning pedigree was a major attraction. He went 135-7 in four years at Santa Ana Mater Dei, becoming the first player in California history to win four state titles in the large-school division. He’s considered the greatest high school player in Orange County history and was the No. 3-ranked prospect nationally by both Scout and Rivals as a senior. He chose Arizona over Kentucky and Southern Cal.

“He’s won everywhere,” Van Gundy said. “California, it’s a rather large state. He won four straight state championships in high school. This guy’s record of success is incredible.”

Assuming Johnson comes off the bench for the Pistons, he could fit in seamlessly with a second unit that will have plenty of shooting and scoring options in Brandon Jennings – assuming he returns healthy off his Achilles tendon surgery – Anthony Tolliver and Jodie Meeks. The Pistons, in addition to shopping for a small forward to compete with Johnson, also will be in the market for a backup center. If they opt for an athletic, pick-and-roll type, Johnson’s defense, energy and ability to run the floor would seem an ideal complement to such a grouping.

Johnson, who turned 19 in late May, becomes the youngest Piston – knocking Andre Drummond off a perch he’s held since he was drafted three years ago at 18. At 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds, he’s physically mature but almost certainly will benefit from a sophisticated weight training regimen – something he’s done very little of to this point.

Down the road, when Johnson is ready to assume a bigger role, Van Gundy anticipates what he might have on the perimeter with Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the backcourt and Johnson on the wing.

“Not only the athleticism, but I think we’ve got some tough, competitive people who are going to get after people,” he said. “You’ve got to balance that with the fact they’re really young, but that’s a good young core of really tough, competitive guys who aren’t going to back down from people at all, physically or in any other way.”

Johnson’s lived all of his 19 years in Southern California and Arizona, so somebody asked if he was prepared for Michigan’s winters.

“I said, ‘They’re paying me a lot of money to get a nice, expensive coat,’ ” Johnson said. “The gym’s about 75 degrees. I expect to be in there a lot.”