You couldn't script a rougher start to a sophomore season than Stanley Johnson's first five games of 2016-17. He's playing 18 minutes per game and is shooting 2-of-16. Not per game. That is his season total.
What exactly is going on here? It's not injury, thankfully, and I'm not even sure it's a lack of confidence. Johnson, it seems, is suffering from something that plagues a lot of young phenoms -- stubbornness. Johnson is being asked to completely rethink his role on the basketball court and is struggling to find opportunities.
“What he’s battling more than anything else is buying in to the best way for him to play with where he is in his career right now,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I’d like to think we have a staff of guys who have been around a long time and seen a lot of players and have an idea. Stanley right now needs to base his game on being a great defender, a rebounding perimeter guy.
“He can be as good a rebounder on the perimeter as anybody in the league. And he’s got to shoot open shots and make simple, solid plays.”
Johnson is going from being the No. 1 option and obvious best player on the floor at nearly all times in high school and college to being the fourth or fifth option on offense.
Van Gundy stilll wants Johnson on the floor because he delivers quality NBA defense on the perimeter, but the truth is, while he has a lot of all-around skills in his game, they likely need a couple years to simmer and develop the appropriate flavor.
That might be tough to stomach for Johnson and for fans. Especially considering the much-maligned 2015 NBA Draft already seems to have broken out a few star players. Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis, Emmanuel Mudiay, Myles Turner, Devin Booker and Justise Winslow are all starters and hoisting more than 10 shots per game.
Johnson, meanwhile, is on a playoff team that also finally has the kind of depth and versatility to make minutes for a developing young player hard to come by.
For his part, Johnson admits the transition has been tough.
“(Accepting that role) is one of the things that as a professional, I have to be better at,” Johnson said. “I don’t think Stan is trying to take away from my game offensively at all but seeing the personality of the team, there has to be somebody to play defense.
“I’ve been the man all my life, but I’ve never been a player who would rather be the man than win games.”
Looking at his non-offensive stats, he’s still making a positive contribution on the court. He’s rebounding well, especially considering he’s playing nearly three-quarters of his minutes at shooting guard, and the team is +3.2 per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
The next step is for him to buy in, figure out his offensive niche and then take advantage of those open opportunities. He shot well on corner 3s last season (38 percent), and with teammates like Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and a holdover starter or two, that is the role he needs to fill for now.
The sooner Johnson finds his groove in that role the better his season, his development and the Pistons’ playoff hopes, will be.