(Editor’s note: Second of a five-part series on the Pistons off-season’s significant personnel moves, the decision to draft Stanley Johnson. Coming Wednesday: drafting Darrun Hilliard.)
As the draft neared and the Pistons looked at their realistic options with the No. 8 pick, it became clear to Stan Van Gundy how his scouting staff felt about Stanley Johnson.
“On top of what he could already do skill-wise, what they were really looking at was his mentality, his competitiveness, his ability to win at every level. And not just to be part of it, but to be a guy driving winning everywhere he’s been – his real desire to be a great player.”
Van Gundy could see some of that come through in his video study in preparation for the draft, but video doesn’t reveal all of what assistant general manager Brian Wright and his staff picked up on scouting trips and in background research.
“We sort of – and I say we; they brought me to it – but Brian and his staff just really thought this was a special guy in terms of having ‘it.’ And we got to see some of that in Orlando. ‘OK, I understand what they’re talking about.’ ”
Van Gundy has learned to take Summer League performances – good or bad – with a grain of salt. But he’s comfortable saying that he saw enough from Johnson in Orlando – where he was widely considered the top rookie performer – to say he’ll have an impact in his rookie season.
“He’s got a long way to go and a lot to learn, but there’s definitely something there that gives him a chance to be a really, really good layer. He’s got extreme confidence and an extreme competitiveness. He wants to go out and kick everybody’s (backside). And it’s a good thing. I do think Summer League gives you a confidence that you can look to a guy playing. Going into Summer League, I was sort of, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see in terms of his readiness right away.’ But coming out of Summer League, yeah, I have a pretty good confidence that certainly at some point in the year he’s a guy who’s going to be able to play significant minutes at significant times.”
Johnson put up impressive numbers in Orlando. He led the Pistons in scoring (16.2), rebounding (6.8) and steals and finished second in assists and blocked shots. Just as impressive were his poise, patience and demeanor. He wasn’t obsessed with proving to the world that he was deserving of his draft status, as so many rookies appear to be in Summer League.
“He was just playing. I think he’s got a true confidence,” Van Gundy said. “Not one of those ones where guys feel the need to talk. They’re almost trying to convince themselves. We interviewed him twice – in Chicago (at the NBA draft combine) and here. Very comfortable with himself and who he was. There are going to be times we need to build him up and there are going to be times we need to take him down a notch, I’m sure, but I came out of there feeling good about him. Not only for the future but for right now, that he could go in and handle those kinds of battles with good people.”
Johnson’s self-assessment before suiting up in Summer League was that he needed to better his decision-making abilities, but he made very few poor choices in five Summer League games.
“He actually played better there in terms of decision-making than he did in college,” Van Gundy said. “I thought he did a better job on passes, especially, than he had done in college.”
Johnson made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in Orlando. His release point is a little too low and the Pistons, after hiring shooting coach Dave Hopla this summer, will address it with him before training camp.
“He’s a better shooter than people give him credit for, which I think everybody saw there,” Van Gundy said. “But he is going to need to change the release point and get it up, which is a little uncomfortable for guys trying to change their shot. And, when you’ve had the success Stanley’s had, to see the need for it. But he’s going to need to do that. And he’s going to need to continue to make the kind of decisions he made down there and to defend the way he did there.
“But there’s nothing I’ve seen that would indicate he couldn’t step in and play minutes right away. I know in his mind he’s coming in to compete for a starting position. I think that’s great.”