There aren’t many teenage wings who become productive starters in the NBA soon after they are drafted. Here’s the full list. You’ll see names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Stanley Johnson was a key reserve for the Pistons last season, so there was some hope among fans that this year would represent a next key step for him. That he might be able to contend for Sixth Man of the Year. Maybe push Marcus Morris for the starting job. But history tells us that’s a tough leap to make.
Still, if you told those fans that we’d see Johnson’s minutes decrease by nearly half, his role in the rotation dissipate, and that he’d make an appearance with the Grand Rapids Drive just to give him a chance to get on the court…
After starting the season as the first player off the bench, Johnson lost his role to Reggie Bullock. After Bullock went down with injury, Johnson then lost his role to Darrun Hilliard. Also behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris for minutes, as well as Tobias Harris who has the ability to slide to small forward, Johnson essentially became the sixth option on the wings. There was even a suspension for a violation of team rules to boot.
Considering his big role last season, that’s disappointing. But keep in mind, the competition this season has been stronger. It was primarily due to injury that Johnson had his early opportunities to get on the court. Jodie Meeks’ foot injury kept him out nearly the entire season. A healthy Meeks would likely have meant a sitting Stanley.
His other competition was unproven and inexperienced. Bullock had bounced around the league and only made the roster thanks to an excellent preseason (along with an injury to his biggest competition for the 15th roster spot). Hilliard was a four year college player, but still a rookie like Johnson.
But this year each of the three came into the season with a bit more seasoning - with Hilliard and Bullock’s head starts on the development curve giving them an advantage.
It’s easy to look around Johnson’s draft class and feel a little regret. Seeing gaudy numbers by players taken behind Johnson in Devin Booker and Myles Turner. But it’s also worth noting that their teams are 7-17 and 12-12 respectively.
The Pistons are looking to be competitive this season and they don’t have the luxury of being charitable with spots in their rotation.
Many Pistons fans look at Booker in particular, with his sweet shooting stroke and 18.7 points per game. But digging deeper, his season hasn’t been as impressive. Booker is hailed for his three point shooting ability, but only knocking down 31.9 percent of his threes. His scoring has been with only a 51 percent true shooting percentage. He’s had a net rating of -4.6 and .018 win shares per 48 minutes.
That’s not to say Devin Booker isn’t a good prospect. He is. He’s shooting 47 percent from 16 feet to inside the three point line, an indication that he still shows tremendous potential as a three point shooter. He’s also been better than expected defensively while becoming well-rounded offensively. He’s just a very young player, and very young wings are rarely plus starters.
It’s a matter of development. Is it better for a young player’s development to be pushed into the deep end and let them figure it out or to be handed bite sized pieces?
There’s probably no exact answer to that question. Caldwell-Pope was prematurely handed a starting job and seems to be developing fine whereas you could look at Denver where Emmanuel Mudiay looks to be floundering with too much responsibility as the point guard of the future.
Or you could look at Otto Porter, who took gradually increasing responsibilities in Washington to the point that he’s thriving this season in year four. But then, there’s no shortage of players taking this route who saw their teams lose interest and jettison them before ever getting that chance to take the next step.
But personally, I prefer the latter. I’ve never understood how doing something badly in bulk helps a player - that rather success leads to more success. And it seems to me that’s the approach for Johnson. For instance, a suspension for violation of team rules or losing a rotation spot (especially when it’s due to being outplayed) could be looked at as a young player on the decline - or it could be a coach holding a young player accountable. I think accountability with youth is a good thing.
There’s plenty of examples of success and failure in both routes. The key is to remember that each prospect is different and development of a player (or, to get deep for a moment, of each of us in life) is rarely linear.
Probably the best aspect for Johnson’s development as a player is that Stan Van Gundy has been clear with him. Clear with his expectations, clear with Johnson’s reason for not playing, clear with accountability - and also clear with his praise.
Van Gundy said heading into last summer that he wanted Johnson focused on skill development. Shooting, footwork, and ball handling. Not his competitiveness. SVG had no doubts about that.
“It's great that you want to go out there and compete, but you need the skills to be able to do it. And at this point, he doesn't have them at the level that he needs them. I don't say that as a negative. He's 19 years old. But it's got to be an extreme focus on skill development. I don't even want him playing, quite honestly. I want him to stay away from the Drew League and playing one-on-one with his boys and all of that because with him, I know what happens - he wants to win that game. He wants to show well in that game. That's great. [But] What that does is drive you right back to your strengths and playing the way you've always played. He needs to change his approach in the offseason and really, really pay attention to his skills.”
So Stanley Johnson scored 46 points in the Drew League…
And opening the season, it’s the skill stuff that’s keeping him off the floor. Johnson reigned in his game and it’s led to an improvement in his shooting efficiency and avoiding turnovers, but it’s easy to see why SVG trusts Hilliard ahead of Johnson as a shooter and for putting the ball on the floor.
Sunday’s game against the 76ers was Johnson’s first extended run with the Pistons in several weeks and both Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses were fully on display. Johnson played tough defense, including nabbing five steals and a block. He flashed his potential as a passer with four assists with no turnovers.
But he also shot just 2 of 8 with several ugly misses. At this point in his career, his competitiveness and aggressiveness have had a tendency to be his strongest asset and biggest enemy.
Johnson is at his best when he’s keeping the ball moving and chipping in offensively as opportunities allow. But too often, he wants to contribute, to prove himself as a scorer, but his skills haven’t developed enough to allow that and he gets in over his head.
Just as Van Gundy says, that’s not a negative - that’s a matter of his youth. It’ll come with time. This year Johnson needs to continue to improve his skills. Improving his footwork will give him an easier time at the rim, helping him shoot over bigger players or draw more fouls. It’ll help him extend his shooting range to be reliable from three in spots other than just the corners.
And we’re already seeing it pay off in his pick and roll play. Johnson’s 1.17 points per possession in the pick and roll (which has made up a hefty 35 percent of his possessions) puts him in the 96th percentile of the league. It’s not a large sample yet, but still a reason for optimism.
Next season will be the one where he proves to be worthy of consistent rotation minutes. It’ll be year four that we look for him to be a plus contributor, whether as a starter or off the bench.
That’ll be the year that he proves himself with a win shares per 48 minutes figure north of .100 or a net rating in the positive. And there’s no reason to think he can’t get there. Johnson has already brought his WS/48 up to .082 this season from .018 last year. It’s not particularly difficult to see Johnson’s road to becoming a plus contributor - a tenacious defender who can put the ball on the floor, help out in the pick and roll, keep the ball moving, and knock down the open look.
There are others who have carved this route for Johnson. Ron Artest (or Metta World Peace if you prefer - I don’t) or Gerald Wallace both served as tough, physical two-way players in the previous generation of NBA players. Wallace entered the league at 19 years old, Artest at 20. Artest saw big minutes young whereas Wallace had to do more to prove himself. Check out how the three players’ advanced numbers line up:
It was year four for Artest and year five for Wallace when each player took the step as a plus player - each was 23 years old. Or in other words, that’s what a normal player’s development looks like.
When drafting a teenager, it’s important to keep the long picture in mind. There are going to be ups and downs and it’s important to be patient - both the franchise and the fans. Despite struggles and hurdles for this season, Johnson’s long picture still looks to be a very bright one.