Stanley Johnson even better on day two as Pistons grab first Summer League win

Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson led all players in scoring, rebounding and steals as the Pistons evened their Summer League record at 1-1.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – If day one of Stanley Johnson was very good, day two was borderline great.

As a 21-year-old coming off his rookie season, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope carried himself in 2014 Summer League as if he was the best player on the court and then backed it up by playing that way.

As a (barely) 19-year-old, Stanley Johnson struck the same pose and stood out as much above the crowd on Sunday as his future running mate on the wings of Stan Van Gundy’s offense did a year ago.

Johnson led all players in scoring with 24 points, in rebounding with nine and in steals with three in a 77-69 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. He hit 10 of 14 shots, got to the line five times and displayed strength, poise and intelligence beyond his years – and most anyone else’s, for that matter.

Somebody asked if he felt he should dominate Summer League, a place where hungry players four and five years older than him come in search of a job.

“I think I should dominate every game, honestly,” he said. “I’m not going to sell myself short just because this is Summer League or playing the Cavs or playing the Lakers. To me, it’s about every game, same effort. If I can keep with that, if I can dominate, I dominate. But as long as I have the same effort in getting better, that’s all that matters.”

“I think the thing that’s most impressive is the calmness to his game right now,” Pistons coach Bob Beyer said. “We’ve thrown a lot at him in a very short period of time.”

The traits everybody who knows Johnson mentions off the top are self-confidence and competitiveness. That’s a wonderful one-two punch if the goal is to maximize physical gifts. Johnson has oozed those qualities through the first two Summer League games.

As he did in the opener, Johnson flashed parts of his game that transcend the box score.

The predraft rap on his difficulty finishing in traffic already seems a distant memory. In transition and after contested offensive rebounds, he scored without fail. Pistons scouts rolled their eyes at that criticism from the get-go, by the way, but it stuck to Johnson coming out of the draft.

“He’s been good,” Beyer said. “Again, it goes back to his patience. He gets the ball in there, he’s good with his fakes, his pivot game. He gets the ball back up on the glass, he can draw a foul because he plays through contact. He has a strong body and he’s able to do that.”

The most misleading stat of the day has to be his one official assist. Johnson has excelled at making the simple but effective pass over two days. His assist was a beauty, a pocket pass out of pick and roll that produced a dunk for Jared Berggren. But he’s shown an ability to generate scoring chances as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations. If Van Gundy doesn’t incorporate that into the offense in Johnson’s rookie season, it probably will come soon after.

“I’ve always been good at that,” he said. “I’ve always been able to play off the bounce. Everybody’s perception of me is different than what I actually was. I’ve been working on it forever and now I get to show it.”

As he did in his Saturday debut, Johnson again scored on an impressive drive that revealed a potent combination of quickness to get past his defender, strength to hold him off on his hip and finesse with a lefty finish to accommodate a tough angle as he closed from the right side. Later, he stepped into his man to force contact, creating space with his strength and knocking down a mid-range bank shot. He showed great touch in draining a 10-foot runner in the lane.

For a player as decorated as Johnson has been – four state titles in high school, gold medals as a central figure on three United States age-group national teams – there is no palpable sense of entitlement to him. He’s impressed Pistons staffers with his curiosity for the game.

“He’s a very smart player,” Beyer said. “He’s always grabbing some of the coaches. He wants to look at additional tape and he wants mistakes pointed out to him. He really is a sponge. He wants to get everything he can, he absorbs it and he moves on very quickly.”

You’d never know Johnson’s Sunday outing came on a back-to-back set preceded by seven practices crammed into the preceding four days. The Pistons have another game Monday, this one against the Miami Heat – who drafted Justise Winslow two spots after the Pistons made Johnson the No. 8 pick to raised eyebrows from those convinced Winslow was the better player.

The two are good friends, teammates on all those USA Basketball medal winners and before that in AAU ball as middle schoolers, who ate dinner together Saturday and might catch a movie together after Sunday’s games, Johnson said. But he dismissed any attempt to characterize Monday’s matchup as more than a Summer League game between the Pistons and Heat.

“Don’t start this,” he said when questioned about it. “It’s terrible. It’s not about me and him.”

So the matchup means nothing?

“No, it means nothing. Play against LeBron, that’s what means something.”

Yeah, confidence and ambition aren’t going to be issues with Stanley Johnson.

  • The Pistons got seven out of a possible eight points for Sunday’s win, winning each of the first three quarters and the four points for winning the game. They entered Sunday last among the 10 teams here after getting only one point out of Saturday’s loss.
  • Kammeron Holsey was the only other Pistons player in double figures with 16 points in 22 minutes off the bench. The 6-foot-8 forward out of Georgia Tech played with the Grand Rapids Drive last season. He didn’t appear in Saturday’s opener.
  • Some nice moments for No. 2 pick Darrun Hilliard, who finished with nine points and three boards in 18 minutes off the bench. He hit a triple to end the third quarter and give the Pistons the point for winning the quarter.

    “I was just happy he rose up and shot that ball with a lot of confidence,” Beyer said.

  • After a rough first half of the opener, Spencer Dinwiddie started to turn things around and played better on Sunday, finishing with six assists.

    “He put a little undue pressure on himself,” Beyer said. “I think he wanted to hit a home run the first time he stepped on the court. He settled down the second half yesterday, the whole game today, and he played much, much better.”

  • The Pistons game with the Heat will tip at 5 p.m. They get a day off Tuesday, then play Indiana at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
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