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2016-17 Pistons review: Stanley Johnson rode the rollercoaster, except when he didn’t

Stanley showed flashes of Josh Smith mixed with touches of Josh Smith.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2016-17 NBA season, many were hoping that Stanley Johnson, the No. 8 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, would build on his promising rookie season. Having averaged over 8 points and 4 rebounds as a rookie in the league, expectations were high, and once again, the question was when he would assume starting small forward duties in place of Marcus Morris, not if.

Cue freefall.

If we look at the raw per-game numbers, they don’t tell the whole story. Instead, they are just the prelude into a six-month dramedy of Movie 43 (ed note: If you don’t get this reference, consider yourself lucky) proportions. 4.4 points per game, 2.5 assists, 1.4 rebounds, all in a lackluster 17.8 minutes. Then we get to the special effects. A PER of 7.2, worse than all teammates not named Darrun or Mike, a True Shooting percentage of 43.6, besting only old mate Mike again, and a turnover rate of 15.5 percent, good enough for 13th on the team ... better than only Darrun and #TeamHenny.

Does this mean that there were no positives to take from Stanley’s admittedly awful season? Yes.



Ok you’re still here. Good.

Tough as it is, there are things we can take from this season from hell at the forlornly empty Palace of Auburn Hills.

Stanley is still only 20 years old (21 on May 29), and while this can be a tough sell to some fans, if there’s anyone on the team deserving of the ‘he’s still super young’ excuse, it’s young Stanimal over here.


Stanley averaged 23.1 minutes as a rookie, a pretty high number considering Stan Van Gundy’s general aversion to youthful exuberance. He quickly realised his preferred methodology, however, and proceeded to cut our subject’s minutes substantially, as Stanley only appeared for 17.8 minutes per contest as a sophomore.

In Australia, we have a concept applied to young players who have exhibited early success in their sporting league. It’s called ‘Second Year Syndrome’, and it’s akin to a sophomore slump. The main explanation is that opposing teams have generally figured out what made players so effective, and limited them. Also, the element of surprise is gone.

Maybe Stanley just wasn’t ready for adjusted game planning in his second year. However, when you watch the tape, it’s a bit hard to sell this as a real issue given Stanley’s role on the team as the de facto chimney sweep, such was his unglamorous role in the offense. With a usage rate of a miniscule 14.8 percent, Stanley decided possessions more often than only Aron Baynes and Reggie Bullock. He was a speck on the offensive gameplan, while still being tasked as a primary defender on tough covers. That’s a hard sell for any young player.


Quick decision making will be the key to Stanley’s success in the near future. Watch here how he gathers the pass from Tobias Harris and immediately barrels inside, recognising he has the far smaller Lou Williams in front of him. Keeping the ball high, he powers through with a nice floater combining his unique strength and size at his age coupled with smooth movement and agility.

Another aspect of Stanley’s play that I noticed come to the fore a bit this season was his ability in the pick and roll. Again, this is all about being decisive and quick with his actions and decision making. He gets a mountainous screen from Aron Baynes to lose Jameer Nelson and, noticing Kenneth Faried is hesitant to commit to closing him out, pulls up for a neat little elbow jumper, a play that Johnson made numerous times this season.

If there is one thing that Stanley needs to improve on to become a real force, it is his ball handling. Too often he dribbles into trouble and has no way out, forcing a bad pass or shot. Here, he tries to power past PJ Tucker, a good defender, without the assistance of a screen or other misdirection. Notice the spacing. It’s not great. Johnson is pretty much on the right wing, as is Beno Udrih, which allows Udrih’s man, Cory Joseph, to sit comfortably in the lane as a help defender on the strong side drive (Johnson’s right hand). Stanley forces the issue, loses his footing and handle, and the Raptors race away.

Many people, including Stanley himself (hopefully), will acknowledge that this wasn’t the greatest season for the Mater Dei and University of Arizona product. A cull in minutes and low usage led to some frustrating experiences out on the court. However, his quick decision making and ability to operate in PNR have given glimpses into the type of player he can become, and as he enters his third NBA season, the hope would be that he can refine his skills and read the nuances of an NBA game in order to maximise his output and turn into the beast we know he can be.