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The Kool-Aid Stand: Stanley Johnson is poised to finally break out

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His defense has kept him relevant. But this will be the year his offense finally comes around. Hopefully.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s something I’ve never quite understood. Despite his miserable offensive performances over the past two years, Stanley Johnson’s net rating always tends to be about even. Last year it was -.4, the year prior it was .2.

How does that happen? Over that stretch, Johnson had a true shooting percentage of 46 percent. Here’s the list of players who got 3,000 minutes worth of playing time over the past two years and had a true shooting percentage of less than 47 percent:

Stanley Johnson

Johnson was probably the worst offensive player in the league to get as large of a role that he had. And he wound up being about a net neutral player. How? Doesn’t that essentially mean that he’d have to be the best defensive player in the league for it to balance out?

While being a solid defensive player, he certainly wasn’t the best. His defensive rating was 104.2, just slightly better than the team’s 104.8. His defended field goal percentage was 45.2 percent, just one percentage point under opponents’ averages. He generated a good number of steals, but even his box score defensive figures only suggest an above average but not elite defensive player.

It doesn’t add up. And that’s my favorite type of analysis to work. When the numbers or the eye test aren’t in alignment and figuring out why. And the answer with Stanley Johnson? It’s the ever elusive, abstraction notion: intangibles. Stanley’s got them.

A lot of what Johnson brings to the defensive end isn’t recorded in box scores. It’s being active, being aware, being a pain in the ass. As Mike Snyder says, basketball can be an easy game if you let it be. But a guy like Johnson can make it tougher by mucking everything up.

When folks are just doing their thing on defense, the offensive side of the ball is probably going to win. Even when they’re playing hard, locked in, all that. It takes guys who can be disruptive to make a difference. Johnson does a great job of that. He plays with an intelligence on the defensive end that surpasses his age.

This clip is a great example of Johnson at his best. He communicates well with Reggie Bullock on the switch and fights his way through the dribble handoff option. But most importantly, he’s able to spot where the defense breaks down as Andre Drummond completely abandons his man to randomly double team Allen Crabbe. He sees the threat immediately and takes away what otherwise would have been a wide open dunk.

It’s easy to notice and is memorable when a defensive player keys in to shut down his opposing player. But making good switches and staying active are much more subtle.

Jabari Parker: “They don’t pay players to play defense.”

That kind of mentality is way too prevalent. Stanley Johnson is in the final year of his rookie contract this year and won’t be the recipient of a big payday from plays like this. While Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard seem to want to cover the same one player at a time in unison, many would just shrug off how their shitty decision making left a guy wide open. Wasn’t his fault, after all.

But Johnson gets out and forces the miss instead. Even though plays like that aren’t going to get him his payday, despite their value. The Nets had pulled the game to within three just a few minutes earlier and this play came in the middle of a run that let the Pistons move to a double digit lead, enough of a cushion to get the win.

It didn’t quite work on this play, but this is a great example of Johnson’s impact. Drummond trying to front Joel Embiid, who gets a great entry pass from Dario Saric, it’d be an easy dunk. He at least offers a bit of resistance, nearly gets a swipe on the ball, and gives Drummond time to recover defensively if he’d choose to.

Again, it’s easy to just stand back and watch a teammate get beat. That’s the route most other guys in the league take. But that’s not Johnson.

On the offensive end, Johnson tries to do too much in a way that’s a vice. Not on the defensive end. He nearly gets the steal by inserting himself into the play and still keeps his man in check. Meanwhile, his teammates can’t even be bothered to challenge the shot. His activity level is just so much higher than everyone else’s. Activity shouldn’t be confused for effectiveness, but in Johnson’s case they’re in alignment.

This isn’t the way the rim protection help should have gone. But Johnson went and did his best Aron Baynes impression anyways, stepping up and staying vertical to force the tough finish while avoiding a foul.

Johnson defended three different players on this play. He and Anthony Tolliver were probably the two best defensive players on the team last year for two big reasons. Their smart and active team defense, along with their work on closeouts.

Here they’re both well aware of the shot clock and make life miserable for DeMarre Carroll. They defend without fouling and work together to shut the possession down.

To expand a bit more on Parker’s quote, he went on to say, “I’m not going to say I won’t [play defense], but to say that it’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. I’ve scored 30s or 20s off of guys who say they try to play defense.” He also said, “Certain guys have a [scoring] average, and no matter what you do they still get that average.”

That’s probably fair. The stuff above is really what makes Johnson unique on the defensive end. It’s worth noting that he’s still a pretty good on-ball defensive player though.

Even going under the screen, he’s able to close out to make it a damn tough shot.

And he’s able to go through a screen and still have the speed and length to disrupt the shot.

It’s odd how a player can look so unathletic on one end but seem to have all of the athletic tools that he needs on the other.

So that’s my answer for how Stanley Johnson managed to be a net neutral player despite his lousy scoring numbers. But...those scoring numbers are important.

For Johnson to actually break out, those are going to need to come around. Even with his virtues, it’s going to be tough for Johnson to carve out a career as a 46 percent true shooting percentage guy.

Perhaps no player on the Pistons could benefit from Dwane Casey’s shot spectrum more than Stanley Johnson.

stats.nba.com

Ok, so the entire damn thing is red, yes. Acknowledged. Amazing that he managed to be a net neutral player with a shot chart like that, right?

But look at the distribution numbers. 19.3 percent of Johnson’s shots were two point shots from outside the paint, where he shot just 36 percent. 27.3 percent were above the break threes, which he’s never been good at.

Less than 40 percent of his shots came from inside the restricted area or on corner threes - which are really the only two spots he has shown the ability to possibly be efficient. In his first two seasons, he shot 37.8 and 35.9 percent on corner threes.

With 60 percent of his shots coming on shots he hits at a low percentage, it’s no wonder he’s never come close to sniffing 50+ percent true shooting percentage.

In his introductory press conference, Casey said, “And that was the main topic we had last week with the players is making sure we understand the shot spectrum, the efficiency of shots that we want to take and how we want to play.”

Talking specifically about Johnson, assistant coach D.J. Bakker said, “If Stanley makes a couple of corner threes, he is so strong, he is so physical and he is so athletic that he can turn the corner, get downhill, bump a guy and easily finish at the rim. It’s going to open up the floor a lot more for him and he’s going to be given the green light. Get his feet set, get in the corner, shoot with confidence and shoot with belief. The coaching staff, when he gets a wide-open corner three, we want him to take it and he’s going to know that and he’s going to feel it and I believe those things are going to make him a better than league-average shooter.”

All of that makes a lot of sense for Johnson.

Mike’s thread on how he can get smarter off the ball is also a great example on how Johnson can take that next step.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a player like Johnson to go from a miserable shooting percentages to passable. In his third season, Draymond Green went from a 46 percent TS to 54 percent thanks in a large part to tightening up his shot selection. He went from 30 percent of his shots coming from between the restricted area to the three point line in his second season to 20 percent the following year.

However he goes about it, Johnson needs to figure out how to not be a liability on offense. The league average for TS last year was 55.6 percent, so that’s the mark to hit.

It’s possible for Johnson, to be sure. And if he can manage it, he’ll be a valuable player.