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The Stanley Johnson era in Detroit is ready to come to a close

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Despite his promise, it’s clear Johnson won’t reach his potential in a Pistons uniform.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It’s with pain that I write these words, but over the past couple of months, the realization has finally set in - it’s time for Detroit to move on from Stanley Johnson.

It’s been a relatively short-lived, yet somehow never-ending roller coaster ride watching Johnson’s career in Detroit, filled with glimmers of a well-rounded NBA game, grounded in an innate defensive prowess, but coupled with head-scratching turnovers and clanks from beyond the arc.

For every “what a dime!” or “what a stop!” there’s a “please just dunk the ball” or a “you were wide open.” The raw talent is there, it’s always been there, it’s still there, it’s the reason why so many have held onto hope for so long, including yours truly, yet it’s never come to fruition. And while he may piece it together in the future, seeing how he’s still just 22 years old, it shouldn’t be in Detroit.

Over the past year and a half I’ve written both the 2017-18 Stanley Johnson season preview and 2017-18 Stanley Johnson season review, and one could call both of those articles optimistic. In the former, I predicted that Johnson’s three-point shooting would finally turn the corner, and that Stan Van Gundy would find a way utilize him from a playmaking perspective. In the latter, I had taken solace in the fact that he pieced together an impressive February and end of season run, had looked great in transition, and thought the incoming head coach (later to be named Dwane Casey) would turn things around. I concluded “Don’t listen to those guys on the Detroit Bad Boys podcast. Don’t give up on Stanley Johnson.”

And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Revisionist History

Johnson was selected 8th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was coming off an excellent high school career, and a solid one year stint at the University of Arizona. A true blue-chipper, Johnson was supposed to be a lottery pick - he was groomed to be, he was one of those guys who was always affiliated with those high school all-star games and USA Basketball camps. He garnered scholarship offers from the top schools in the nation, and, not to mention, already had the physique of an NBA vet (or NFL vet) by the time he arrived in Tucson.

Johnson’s pedigree was not questionable, Detroit’s selection of him based on that pedigree was. As you already know, he was drafted ahead of Devin Booker, the name most people point to when they build their “what if Detroit drafted this guy” roster. But more notably than Booker, Justise Winslow was on the board, and as former DBB writer J Parker Pool beautifully noted, a lot of Pistons nation were gleeful when Winslow fell in the draft- he wrote it so well, I’ll let him take it from here.

Now I’m not a fan of revisionist history, but that doesn’t mean there are not moments where I wonder what could have been, especially since Winslow (not Booker) who was linked to Detroit since they figured to have their shooting guard of the future in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Here’s some of the media’s reaction to Detroit passing on Winslow.

Oh yeah, Winslow signed a 3 year/$39M contract extension with the Heat this past off-season, so things have gone pretty well from their perspective. Sadly for Detroit, at this point in their careers #JustiseBetter.

What happened?

After Johnson finished setting the NBA Summer League ablaze, Pistons fans were ALL-IN on their newly acquired small forward. And he put together an impressive rookie campaign, averaging 8.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 23 minutes per game. Now his shooting percentages weren’t very impressive, but those would surely come along eventually, right? Besides that, he went toe to toe (on the defensive side of the floor) with LeBron freakin’ James in the playoffs, and illustrated that blue-collar I’ll never backdown attitude that’s been a staple of all of Detroit’s most beloved and successful teams in year’s past. Pistons fans love that type of attitude, they eat that stuff up, I ate that stuff up and couldn’t have been more excited for year two, where he and the team would surely level up.

Johnson’s second season in Detroit was frankly a disaster. Not only did the team struggle to find an identity with Reggie Jackson sidelined to start the season, Johnson appeared to have been ripped of any of the confidence he exuded just a few months prior. In almost every single traditional counting stat, his numbers dipped (or plummeted), I’m talking points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes per game. His shooting numbers also declined, having shot 35 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three in year two, compared to his rookie year where he averaged 38 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

His relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy was rocky, to say the least. He didn’t appear to embrace SVG’s tough love approach, and found himself in the doghouse throughout the year. Van Gundy didn’t seem to want to try a different approach when times got tough, it was his way or the highway, or the bench. It was frustrating, not only for Johnson and Van Gundy, but for the fan base. I’m confident that a lot of us would have rathered SVG simply allow him to play through his mistakes than constantly fear the tap on the shoulder signifying his stint on the floor was over at that time.

In his third year, he was tasked with a much larger role and handed the reigns to a spot in the starting line-up; he averaged 10 minutes per game more than his previous season. Johnson went on to start 50 games in 2017-18, but as I had already described in that review piece above, Van Gundy was unable to carve out a niche for him with the starters. It was a worst-case scenario for the young small forward - essentially being asked to sit, wait, and shoot (usually a forced three) once the ball eventually found his way. This was typically after Detroit went through their first, second or even third options during a given possession. Damn...

Johnson’s fourth season with Detroit was going to be the year he finally broke loose, it had to be. He was paired with a known player’s coach in Dwane Casey, and that one assistant coach from the Bucks who Giannis Antetokounmpo loved so dearly. He was finally free from the leash of SVG, and had his best friend on the squad, Andre Drummond, a healthy Reggie Jackson AND Blake Griffin, by his side. Sit back, crack a beer, and get those I told you tweets drafted up,

The fact of the matter is, Johnson is still who he was when the Pistons drafted him. He has yet to establish a defined role under two head coaches and 3.5 years in the league. He’s shooting better from two this season, but worse from three, compared to his rookie year, resulting in a 45% effective field goal percentage.

He’s still got that all-NBA level of defense, and is one of the few guys you can feel confident in when he defends the Kawhi Leonards and LeBron James’ of the world (as confident as possible at least), but being a plus defender and disastrous net negative on offense is not sustainable in today’s NBA, and it’s even more of a problem for the Pistons, seeing how they have one of the stalest offenses in the league.

There’s plenty of moments where one can look back and wonder what went wrong. Stan Van Gundy and his staff certainly shoulders some of the blame, not for drafting him, but for failing to develop him into the player he should have been while in Detroit. Casey hasn’t cracked the code either, and that’s a shame, because there’s a well-rounded NBA player in there somewhere, but at this point a different club should be the ones to extract it.

What now?

Johnson will be a restricted free agent following this season, meaning Detroit can offer him the most money and longest deal since they hold his bird rights, but as I’ve already proclaimed, they should not be looking to bring him back after this year. Now I’m not sure what Johnson is going to fetch in the open market, but I’m confident it will be significantly less than what Winslow got this past summer. That’s a good thing if you’re the Detroit Pistons, a team that needs to penny-pinch as much as possible due to SVG’s disastrous handling of the cap. But even with that being the case, Johnson hasn’t showed enough on the floor to warrant another contract with the team. They have too many obvious holes that need to be filled and should be mainly focus on signing players who can put the ball in the basket.

Rather than waiting to renounce his rights this offseason (aka pulling a KCP) which only opens up cap space, they should move him before the trade deadline. At the time this article is being written, we have about 8 more days before the deadline expires. Since Tom Gores considers the Pistons to be buyers once again, Detroit may look to pick up someone that can help this team now, perhaps packaging him in a deal to acquire an impactful player or scooping a journeyman on a team friendly contract. Another route they could go, would be to try and acquire a future asset - maybe that’s only a second round pick and an expiring contract, but it’s better than losing him for nothing this summer.

I’m not sure what Johnson’s trade value is now, but there are teams out there who believe they can rescue the former lottery pick, and who should be enamored with his physical skill-set. Most recently, the Spurs have been tied to Johnson but this isn’t a fake trade article, so feel free to speculate all you want in the comments below.

*****

Even though things didn’t work out in Detroit, I am still hopeful that he’ll put it all together with another team. It might hurt to watch him move on and have a successful career elsewhere, but he deserves the shot, and another team should get the opportunity to see if they can get the best out of him. And while I may be giving up my real-estate on Stanley Johnson island for now, that doesn’t mean I won’t scoop a few acres down the road.