Stanley Johnson Is Humbled and Hungry to Improve Entering His 3rd NBA Season

Yaron WeitzmanFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2017

Apr 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson (7) reacts after making a three point basket against the Houston Rockets late in the second half at Toyota Center. Detroit Pistons won 114-109 .Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The funny part, says Stanley Johnson, is that he didn't even get off to a strong start.

"I only had like seven points, and we're down 10 early," he tells Bleacher Report over the phone from Las Vegas.

He's talking about his 86-point performance Friday night in the OVO Bounce tournament, an annual showcase sponsored by Drake. How, he's asked, can a player who's never averaged double figures in points in an NBA season come within sniffing distance of 100, especially in a game where other professional hoopsters—such as Frank Kaminsky, Cory Joseph, Brady Heslip and Brandon Jennings—are sharing the floor?

The answer, Johnson says, can be tracked back to mid-April. It was then that Johnson stepped into Stan Van Gundy's office and took a seat. The Detroit Pistons' season had ended just days earlier, and Johnson was there to discuss with his coach, who also happens to be the team president, how he could turn around a career that was quickly drifting into the abyss.

The year had been a failure for both the team—the Pistons finished 37-45 and missed the playoffs—and Johnson. One could say Johnson's struggles played a role in the team's. He averaged just 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per game and was even benched twice. In November, Van Gundy suspended Johnson for a game as punishment for violating team rules (this while the team desperately needed production with Reggie Jackson sidelined because of injury). The two men had butted heads all year and, really, ever since Van Gundy had drafted Johnson eighth overall in 2015.

And so they both sat there, eye-to-eye, ready and eager to address their issues.

"We didn't hold anything back," Johnson said. "That was the first time we had a talk like that. It was really uncomfortable, but real men have conversations. He's just trying to make me better. He doesn't get anything by my struggling again next year."

The back-and-forth went on for a while. Both men, Johnson says, became heated at points. Both men, he says, were blunt.

"I know you can play," Van Gundy said, according to Johnson. "So let's figure things out and make this work." 

Three months later, Van Gundy called Johnson to deliver some news. The Pistons had traded Marcus Morris, one of their starting forwards, to the Boston Celtics in exchange for guard Avery Bradley. A rotation spot had opened up, and Van Gundy and the Pistons were relying on Johnson to fill the void.

And so now, as he prepares for his third NBA season, Johnson, who is still just 21 years old, is being handed another shot to prove he was worthy of that lottery tag. (That shot comes with even higher responsibility now that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has left in free agency.)

As one Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report: "The third year is often telling, for wings especially. By the end of that year, you generally are what you are. For him, it will be whether he's willing to accept that he's not a 25 points-per-game scorer."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Is Johnson a two-way force with the size (6'8", 245 lbs), athleticism and will to lock down multiple positions on defense and create havoc on offense? Or is he a malcontent with a crooked jumper incapable of becoming anything more than an athlete with rare measurables? 

For Johnson, the answer is easy. 

"If you would have told me two years ago that I'd be averaging four points and three rebounds a game in the NBA, I never would have believed you," he says. "Thing is, the NBA life is not the easiest life to live. Being a professional athlete is an everyday process, and it takes time to learn that. 

"I think I have."

Some examples? They are numerous, though Johnson doesn't want to start listing them all. Instead, he offers a summary.

First, there are the relationships with his coaches—that's an area he needs to improve. Same goes for dealing with all the various personalities you find across NBA locker rooms.

Also, it was hard for him, a former high school star who led Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) to four state titles and then averaged 13.8 points per game during his lone season at Arizona, to learn that everyone in the NBA has an impressive background. Nothing is granted or comes easy.

"I thought at first that being in the NBA was all about basketball," Johnson says. "That there's so much more to it was one of the hardest things for me to learn."

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

All that being said, Johnson is aware there are numerous on-court adjustments he needs to make as well. Tops on his offseason list? Fixing his jumper.

He knocked down just 29.2 percent of his treys last year and connected on only 35.3 percent of his looks from the field. Defenses now sag off and dare him to shoot, making life more difficult for him and creating spacing issues for the team. 

To address that, this summer Johnson invited trainer Charlie Torres, who he's worked with for years, up to the Santa Barbara house he's sharing with Frank Kaminsky and Josh Richardson, also clients of agent Bill Duffy.

At first, Torres was hesitant. He wasn't keen about leaving his family for an extended period. He told Johnson he'd only come if he were serious about improving.

Johnson's response? "I want to work harder than I ever have before."

Together, Torres and Johnson broke down film and fiddled around in the gym. Eventually, they honed in on a few areas that needed addressing. Some were basic, like having Johnson spread his feet wider, square up to the basket on his way up and catch the ball with his shooting palm facing the basket so he could more quickly launch his shot.

Others were more complicated.

Torres, for example, instructed Johnson to cease shooting from an athletic stance. Instead, he wanted him to employ a more relaxed posture, with less bend in his knees so that he could extend his shooting shoulder higher into the air. The goal was for Johnson to fix the flat trajectory of his jumper by mimicking the loose release of Klay Thompson, another Torres client, as best as he could.

The two have also worked on conditioning and ball-handling, the latter something the Eastern Conference scout noted as one of Johnson's weaknesses. "He kind of just puts his head down and goes," he says.

Johnson and Torres have also studied tape of Draymond Green and how he's able to wreak havoc as the screener in pick-and-rolls thanks to his ability to pass, dribble and shoot.

"Offensively, we'd like to see (Johnson) become more efficient by shooting a higher percentage and cutting down on his turnovers," Van Gundy wrote to B/R in an email.

"I see Stanley playing more at the small forward position this year after playing the vast majority of his minutes at the 2-guard spot a year ago. But he's an extremely versatile guy—he can guard big 2s, 3s and even 4s. His versatility is a huge advantage for us."

Van Gundy and Johnson have been in communication all summer. On Friday, just hours before Johnson's 86-point explosion, Van Gundy met Johnson in Toronto. He wanted to check in on his progress, but also to share thoughts on the upcoming season. 

"They had like a three-hour talk," Torres says. 

That night, on the University of Toronto's Goldring Centre's gym floor, Johnson found a groove that he hadn't felt in years. He was drilling jumpers but, at the behest of Jennings, repeatedly attacked the rim as opposed to settling, too. He dropped 16 points in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter to erase a 20-point lead. In overtime, he helped his squad clinch the tournament victory.

"I feel like if my jump shot is falling, there aren't many people on the planet that can guard me," he says a few days later. "A lot of people don't know I can play like that. It was fun to show them."       

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.