After drafting Stanley Johnson with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Stan Van Gundy told the media, "For our fans that go back to the Bad Boys era, this is their guy." While some fans and "experts" weren't sold on Johnson being their guy, Johnson immediately won over many fans when he responded to one of his first interview questions at the draft with the Detroit mantra, "Detroit vs. Everybody."
Endearing himself to a proud city and exuding an air of confidence that could breathe life into any draft pick, Johnson elaborated on expectations from Van Gundy and himself, mentioning LeBron James in the process.
"Coach Van Gundy wants me to be a dog, like I am. He wants me to bring the competitive energy like LeBron (James)."
If I had to guess, Johnson added LeBron's name in there himself. Van Gundy's honest, but it seems unlikely even he would tell a 19-year-old draftee he would like him to bring anything like The LeBron James, except maybe a headband, because admittedly James is the rarest of basketball breeds and you'd be setting the kid up for almost-inevitable disappointment.
I don't know for sure -- maybe Van Gundy did use LeBron's name as some sort of reach for the moon, fall among the stars motivational tactic -- but it doesn't really matter, because Johnson's been well-prepared for and welcomes the greatest of challenges.
When Johnson was a freshman at Arizona, Johnson attended LeBron James' Skills Academy in Vegas and voluntarily checked James on D, and held his own, as an 18-year-old. In fact, Stanley Johnson deactivated LeBron's chill mode months before Tobias Harris did. On playing LeBron, Johnson said, "Anytime people think there's a player in the gym who's better than me, that's who I wanna play against."
Johnson brought up James again unsolicited after being asked what it was like to play his buddy Justise Winslow in the NBA Summer League. "Play against LeBron [James], that means something," Johnson said flatly. "He is the best player in the league and I want to be the best player in the league too, so I have a target on him."
Johnson's first NBA action against LeBron came in the Pistons' 104-99 win in November. Johnson didn't get matched up with LeBron at first, but after LeBron made scoring look easy, as he tends to do, Johnson got what he wanted in the second half, including parts of the fourth quarter (hint, hint, SVG). LeBron didn't get anything easy on Johnson, who was matched up with LeBron even more in the Pistons' next game against the Cavs when LeBron only scored on Johnson when Johnson was taken away (or under) with Cavalier screens.
Two plays in particular stood out to me during that second game on Jan. 29. One, the wide open dunk LeBron missed. He took a look back and saw Johnson chasing him, although Johnson didn't go for any Tayshaun-like or KCP-from-behind block. I might pull a hammy with this stretch, but LeBron obviously thought Johnson might come hard. Johnson had every other time, and how often do you see LeBron missing wide open dunks?
The other play came at the end of the third quarter. Despite the Pistons being down 18, Johnson picked up LeBron near half court and stayed on his hip until LeBron went into no-chill mode. Johnson forced LeBron into an ugly, off-balanced shot that banked and missed badly. LeBron had this befuddled look on his way back to his bench, like why wasn't a foul called or why is this 19-year-old all up in my grill? On the other side of the ball in that game, Johnson scored 15 and had five assists and four rebounds.
Johnson also played a helping hand in forcing LeBron into one of the worst games of his career (12 points on 5-for-18 shooting, 6 turnovers) in the Feb. 22 win, the game in which Johnson sprained his right shoulder and played through it to score some big points down the stretch.
When it came down to two possible playoff opponents in the final days of the regular season, do you think there's any doubt as to who Johnson wanted to play in his first playoff series?
Reggie Jackson indicated the team wanted to play the best, fight Goliath, and I'm sure Johnson wanted the same thing.
And just as you would expect, Johnson did not back down when presented the challenge:
Stanley Johnson checking LeBron is marvelous. pic.twitter.com/6CYCPGeCGU— Aaron Johnson (@AJohnsonSports) April 17, 2016
Overall, it's clear LeBron plays worse with Johnson on the floor. According to CBSSports, in four games (including Game 1), LeBron is shooting 39 percent with Johnson in the game, well below his 52 percent shooting this season and the 48 percent against the Pistons with the rookie on the bench.
"He's been a mental monster since he was 17," Jackson said after Game 1 (per MLIVE). "He fears no man, is very confident in his abilities and what he does, and he's still figuring out what he does well and things he has to work on. He wants to be better. He wants to be the greatest to ever do this. Like I said, he fears no man."
Johnson, for the first time, downplayed playing LeBron after Game 1, saying that he was just doing his assignment and "it wasn't one of those situations where he's trying to go at him." Sure, his comments about LeBron being LeBron and getting calls caught attention, but it was seemingly the first time Johnson didn't put LeBron on a pedestal, which makes sense considering they're playoff opponents, mere playoff equals for now, and the mental edge can be an important edge.
LeBron's been on notice, though, and he's being forced to downplay any effect Stanley Johnson (or Stan Van Gundy) may have on him.
"It's not about me versus Stan. It's about his teams versus the teams I've been on," James said of Van Gundy. "I'm not having an individual match up with Stan, or an individual match up with Stanley [Johnson] or any other Stan they could possess. It's about getting my guys ready and that's all that matters."
James is trying to keep focus on LeBron's teams vs. Stan's teams in responding to questions about LeBron vs. Stans, but here it goes back to what Johnson said on draft night, Detroit vs. Everybody. The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James in this playoff series represent 'everybody.' Everybody is picking Cleveland anyway, and that's largely because of LeBron. If Detroit wants to shut down LeBron and get a win vs. everybody, Johnson's our guy.