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2016 Detroit Pistons Preview: Look for steps forward from Stanley Johnson

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There were plenty of bright spots in Johnson’s rookie year and plenty of room for improvement this season.

Stanley Johnson player preview pic Art by Christopher Daniels

-Stanley Johnson, in his own words, about his rookie year.

I’m gonna disagree, Stanley. You had a good rookie year for the Pistons.

Asked to come in right out of Arizona and fortify the second unit, Stanley gave Detroit eight points, four boards, an assist, and a steal in 23 minutes a night. Impressive stuff for a 19-year old, even one as preternaturally physically gifted as Stanley is.

When looking at what Stanley is going to bring to the table in 2016-17, we have to ask what he did well last season and what he didn’t do well last season.

2016’s Good:

Last year’s shot chart can help answer some of those questions.

Stanley Johnson 2015-16 Shot Chart

That’s a lot of red, which is to be expected from a 19-year-old rookie. Despite that, there are things Stanley did well offensively this year.

There are bright spots in the corners and from straightaway; last year he shot 38 percent (32/84) from the corners. He also shot decently from distance in spot-up situations (34.5 percent from three in catch-and-shoot vs. 30.7 percent from three overall), regardless of location. Ideally, those percentages increase across the board this year.

Stanley Johnson advanced shooting stats

He looked comfortable when he knows he’s going to shoot immediately, and defenders are hesitant to close out hard on a rookie who shot as poorly as he did overall.

During the regular season, Stanley was still “pushing” the ball more than shooting, so even when he got open looks, he didn’t convert at the rate you’d like to see. The Pistons diagnosed this as well, and instructed him to work on heightening his release point, something he showed marginal improvement on in Summer League:

Last year Stanley also was a good on-ball defender when locked in, using his upper-body strength to prevent guys from getting around him and navigating switches fairly well. He also did a good job of being in passing lanes and catching the offense by surprise with his quickness:

The premier example that springs to mind, of course, is Stanley’s defense on LeBron James in the playoffs:

Stanley’s potential as an elite defender is on full display here; he’s physical without fouling, navigating screens well, and cutting off angles of attack. If Stanley can show this level of defensive focus on a night-in-night-out basis, the Pistons will benefit greatly.

2016’s Not-So-Good:

What Stanley wasn’t so great at last year was holding on to the ball and finishing at the rim. As the offensive focus of the second unit, Stanley had plenty of opportunities to create for himself and teammates, but finished with a nearly 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (118 assists, 114 turnovers on the year). He’s got good court vision, but definitely dribbled himself into trouble at times last year.

Stanley also wasn’t good at the rim last year, shooting under 50 percent. This isn’t a new problem with his game; it’s actually something that was a concern for him coming out of college. DraftExpress put it thusly:

Johnson was downright dreadful as a finisher around the basket as a freshman, hitting just 40 perecnt of his half-court shot attempts inside the paint this season, one of the worst rates among any prospect in our Top-100. He isn't very explosive from a vertical standpoint, and had a tough time adjusting to the physicality of the college game, simply trying to beast his way through defenders like he was usually able to in high school. He relies too heavily on his right hand, and isn't quite as physical as you might hope finishing through contact.

We saw many of these issues persist in his rookie year. Despite his mobility, Stanley’s not a leaper, and you can see him trying to use a lot of finesse around the basket for someone as strong as he is. In transition, he uses a lot of euro-stepping around defenders instead of crashing through them.

These finishes, although successful, are frustrating given his physical tools. You would think a player with the strength Johnson clearly has would be more adept at finishing through contact. And although all those finishes went in, his process in transition opens up the potential for turnovers on possessions that should be easy conversions.

2017 Projected Production:

When Stanley plays with the starters this year, he should be focusing on doing the things he’s already good at: On-ball defense and making open corner threes. When he’s on the floor in place of Marcus Morris or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley needs to worry about facilitating instead of isolating, complementing instead of creating. The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll that so much of the Pistons offense is based around offers him free space to shoot, attack, or just keep the offense going:

The majority of Stanley’s minutes should come off the bench, though, and playing next to Ish Smith and Jon Leuer instead of Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver should also help Johnson. Leuer is a more fluid driver than Tolliver was, which opens up passing and driving lanes for Stanley when he and Jon operate in the pick and roll. And teams won’t be able to defend dribble penetration from Ish Smith as well as they could defend Steve Blake, which should create catch-and-shoot corner three-point opportunities for Johnson.

When Stanley plays with the bench, he’ll have the ball in his hands more often, and more of the offense is going to revolve around him. This is when he’ll get the opportunity to display his stronger finishing skills, along with his ability to create shots for himself and others quickly without breaking the offense.

These clips show Stanley can already make these plays. Now, he just needs to make them more consistently, while cutting down on his mental mistakes, making him a more efficient and effective player overall.

A successful year for Stanley will look like the jump Rodney Hood made last year: More minutes, a higher field goal percentage, and more rebounds and assists per game. Unlike Hood, don’t expect him to start at any point during the season (barring an injury to any of the current starters, of course), but if he plays within himself in increased minutes, he could easily close games as part of a defense-first lineup in place of Tobias Harris. Then, in 2017-18, he can fight for a position in the starting lineup, or replace KCP if (god forbid) the team is unable to get an extension done.

Prediction:

13 points, 6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, a steal and half a block, on 43/35/84 shooting.