As a rising star at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, Stanley Johnson might have stood in front of a mirror and seen something similar to LeBron James: a tall, thick frame—strong but not stocky, built but still growing. He might have seen a hooper in a tight end’s body, with an effective but unrefined game and a confidence that the former trumped the latter.
Johnson had James on his mind throughout his teenage years. He would hear stories about James from Mike Brown, James’ former NBA coach, whose son, Elijah, was Johnson’s high school teammate. In 2014, Johnson earned an invitation to the LeBron James Skills Academy, where he went right at James as a rising college freshman.
Fast-forward two years when, in the crescendo of his first NBA season with the Detroit Pistons, Johnson fielded the assignment of a lifetime: guarding James in a playoff series.
Johnson made his share of noise—some of it bizarre. After a 106-101 Game 1 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Johnson complained publicly about the preferential treatment he felt James received from the referees. Following a 107-90 blowout loss in Game 2, he called out James for a "cheap-ass bump" and for only talking smack when Cleveland was winning, per MLive’s Aaron McMann. The spat turned into a national story and made Johnson a target for scrutiny.
"I know Stanley, and there was no disrespect intended out of it, because he knows who LeBron is, he knows what LeBron has accomplished and what he will continue to accomplish," Brown told Bleacher Report. "It was just his competitive nature and his belief in himself and him probably trying to get his team going for that series and trying to get a win. That’s why he said it.
"But I kind of chuckled and said to myself, 'Stanley, just keep quiet a little bit now and go try to win a game or two before you say anything.'"
The Cavaliers went on to sweep the Pistons out of their first postseason in seven years. James averaged 22.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the series. Johnson’s numbers were more modest—8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game—but his confidence never wavered.
"No stage is too big for him," Pistons assistant Bob Beyer said. "Some guys shy away from that. He does not."
"I’m trying to be great," Johnson said. "I know I can get by in the NBA just doing the stuff I was doing last year, but I’m trying to take myself to a new level."
Johnson arrived in the NBA as the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft after hitting 37.1 percent of his threes during his lone year at Arizona, but his wonky form was a concern. So was his left hand, which didn’t get much use in Tucson.
Warts and all, Johnson secured a spot in Stan Van Gundy’s rotation out of his first training camp. At 6'7" and 245 pounds, he had the body to barge his way through the lane and the mindset to match wits with seasoned veterans.
Johnson had the green light from Van Gundy, for better or worse. Among 12 rookies who played at least 20 games and averaged better than two three-point attempts per contest, Johnson finished ninth in field-goal percentage (37.5 percent) and 10th in three-point percentage (30.7 percent), per NBA.com.
His footwork wasn’t crisp. Johnson drew whistles for shuffling his sneakers on simple plays like rip-throughs and post-ups. According to NBA Miner, he recorded the 10th-most traveling calls per game (0.25) in the league.
"He got a little lazy," his trainer, Shea Frazee, said, "and in the NBA, especially when you’re a rookie, they’ll call those things."
Still, Johnson became a staple off the bench in Detroit. When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope strained his groin against Boston in early February, Van Gundy called on Johnson to start. The next game, Johnson delivered his strongest performance of the season: 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block during a 111-105 win opposite Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks.
Four games later, Caldwell-Pope reclaimed his starting spot. Three games after that, Johnson succumbed to a shoulder injury.
After a two-week layoff, Johnson’s jumper lagged—he shot 28.8 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from three over his first 14 games back. His confidence and effort flattened as well.
So Van Gundy, at the behest of his coaching staff, benched Johnson for two games, including a win over the Washington Wizards that clinched Detroit’s first playoff berth since 2009.
The message was clear: Whatever the injury, Johnson had to pick up his effort, and not just in games. Johnson started showing up extra early to practice and stayed late to get up more shots and tighten his dribble.
"I think Stanley a lot of times would just come in the gym and be ready to practice," Beyer said. "Now what he’s done is, he understands the importance of routine. He’s got to get in there. He’s got to get his shots up. He’s got to get his footwork. He’s got to take care of his body. He’s got to commit to the weight room so that now everything is in place."
By the time the playoffs started, Johnson was a rookie in name only. The bravado was still there, especially opposite James, but now he had a jumper to back it up. He shot 52.2 percent from the field and converted 6-of-10 from three-point range during Detroit’s four-game ouster.
Johnson’s offseason priorities were clear: strengthening his left hand, sharpening his footwork and overhauling his jump shot.
"I think Stan [Van Gundy] really had the foresight that we needed to make some adjustments in his shot," Beyer said. "That was the biggest thing. His release point was way too low."
Shortly after their season ended, the Pistons sent the cavalry out to Johnson’s home base in Southern California.
Dave Hopla, Detroit’s shooting coach and a renowned shot doctor, laid the foundation. Van Gundy spent several days patiently reinforcing Johnson’s new mechanics.
"Gotta get your elbow up, Stanley," Van Gundy would remind his pupil. "It’s gotta be like this," he would say before demonstrating how it’s done.
Beyer followed suit with three weeks of shooting drills—face-up jumpers in the mid-range, pump fakes into pull-ups, spot-ups from the corners—and countless reminders to keep his "elbow up."
"You break your shot down, it’s almost like, that’s the way you score," Johnson explained, "so you’ve kind of got to start all over again and work with that first until you work on other stuff."
The dividends of Johnson’s efforts were slow to pay off. He shot 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) from three and 35.5 percent overall for the Pistons’ Orlando Summer League squad in July.
While there, he spent more time honing his shot with Beyer, who served as Detroit’s head coach in Orlando. After that, Johnson put more sweat into his game at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas—and got another up-close reminder of the value of hard work courtesy of his Select squad teammates and the star-studded senior team on the opposite sideline.
Johnson will have to earn every minute in Detroit, with Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris entrenched as the wings and forwards next to Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.
As a starter or key reserve, Johnson will have a prominent role for the Pistons in year two, perhaps with more pick-and-roll responsibilities. They should expect as much after watching the 20-year-old go toe-to-toe with LeBron—and certainly after shipping their coaching staff 2,400 miles west to fine-tune a more complete player. Van Gundy has all the incentive in the world to make a success out of his first high-profile draft pick in Detroit.
"To whom much is given," Johnson said, "much is expected."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.