When the Toronto Raptors had signed Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson I was pretty excited; yes, even for Stanley Johnson. You see, given Detroit’s history of stunting the growth of promising talents (most notably Spencer Dinwiddie and Khris Middleton who would both then blossom following their departure), I felt that with enough work, the “Stanimal” would be able to unleash the beast inside and prove that he belongs in the NBA (which was something becoming less and less believable).
However, my faith in Johnson was not rooted in him being a Pistons player for the bulk of his career. Most of it came from how solid his defence had been up to this season. From ranking 33rd in 3-Year DRAPM from 2016-2019 to owning an average PIPM of 1.15 before this season, an average of roughly 0.9 DRAPTOR, and 9th amongst small forwards in 2019 DRPM. His large, dense frame mixed with quality IQ made him a true force on that end of the court. My favourite example for this is his performance against LeBron in the 2016 playoffs.
For example, this play shows Johnson playing as physical and aggressive as you can get with LeBron, but to avoid the foul he is acting as if they are merely tangled up. This allows him to keep James from being in a safe position to receive the ball, which is an obvious hindrance for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Or this one where LeBron initially tries to outmuscle Stanley, then realizing he is going to be unable to bully the strong young defender. He passes out, gets the ball once again, goes for another push, then uses his speed to drive past him to the rim. However, Johnson does not panic, instead, he keeps his arms up and guides him towards Andre Drummond who he knows will be waiting to contest the shot.
What made this all the more appealing is this was not a one-series wonder type of flash. He was consistently impacting that side of the floor positively night-in and night-out. I’m sure a few remember last year’s game against Detroit when our chances at winning slipped away with a Kawhi Leonard turnover. This was the result of intricate defensive play from Johnson, using his foot to fake an aggressive movement towards Leonard, then using his hand to disrupt.
There are countless examples of how good of a defender Stanley was. The REAL problem was his offence, and all of those stats that had highly rated his defence considered him one of, if not the worst offensive player the league had to offer.
The obvious drawback would be his scoring. Throughout his career leading up to this season he had averaged .374% from the field, .293% on deep shots, and .467% true shooting. Ugly does not even begin to describe how unbelievably appalling these numbers are, but that was the reality of his game.
I did find hope, though. During his 18-game stint in New Orleans last year, he shot .364% on corner threes, while having shot .372% on such shots in his first two seasons. Given our history of helping shooters such as OG Anunoby (projected to shoot .320% coming into the league, shot .371% in his first season), Pascal Siakam (shot .216% in his first two seasons, .369% last year), and Jonas Valanciunas (who had gone from a career 1/4 shooter in his first five seasons to a 36% shooter by the time he was traded away), I thought we would be able to expand upon his occasional corner success.
If he was serious enough, we could help Stanley Johnson given our success in development (even though he seemed more like a lost cause on that end). That’s where the first red flag came.
In the final days leading up to the start of the season, Nick Nurse had publicly called out Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson for (a) not playing good enough defence in training camp, and (b) not trying as hard as they should be. As we all know, Rondae was able to turn this around and become one of the more fun players coming off of the bench, and, in rare moments, serving as a starter.
Stanley Johnson did not, and when Nurse made these comments is when I realized he would not have the growth I had hoped he would (difference with Rondae is he had shown positive traits on offence in the past, particularly passing and as a roll-man, I still had hope for him).
It’s hard to bring up stats for someone who has played so little this season, as they have not had nearly enough time to stabilize. What I will mention into a little segway of one annoying trait Johnson has developed is his brief stint with the 905. In three-games with the G-League affiliate, he has averaged 22.7 PPG which seems pretty good. The problem is he did this on .323% field goal shooting and .240% from deep. He shot a total of 20/62 which equated to a .480 true shooting percentage. Again, this was in merely three games.
Now, what is that aforementioned trait? Stanley is a ball hog. He gets tunnel vision, he is playing selfishly more often than not and stagnates the offence. Though this is on limited touches, he averages 3.14 seconds with the ball in his hand. This is more than the likes of Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, Evan Fournier, and our own Norman Powell, and way more than what someone of his capability should be holding the rock for. So, if he’s so seemingly confident, what is it that does he do with the ball in his hands?
This video (which would not convert to a GIF for whatever reason) also holds a hard-to-watch possession carried by Johnson (it can be seen at 0:34-0:47). Johnson drives against two defenders, passes it to the corner where Oshae Brissett is not necessarily open. Given how Johnson had an extra defender on him, one was able to go and help trap Brissett leading to a turnover when Johnson attempted to demand the ball back.
It’s not pretty. Of course, there is the uber-rare moment where he gets his bucket, but his style is far more damaging to the team than it is beneficial. His deep shot has not come around (as a matter of fact it’s at a career-low) and he’s shooting his worst inside the arc as well.
Not even his defence has been looking too good.
Here is him getting way too antsy:
Same thing here again:
He didn’t even have to be pump-faked. There’s not much to dive into his defence in this particular season. It’s lazy, impatient, sloppy, and not a positive to the game.
Johnson has been trying too hard to force plays on both ends in what appears to be a passionate effort to secure his place in the NBA. Unfortunately, it has had an opposite effect throughout the majority of the season. With that being said, the most recent game against the Philadelphia 76ers is one that provided me with some renewed hope in the former lottery pick. It goes beyond the game-winning shot he hit too.
While Stanley did not play a perfect game, he seemed much more composed on both ends of the floor. Not rushing or forcing anything, but instead making proper decisions and playing more for the team. My favourite instance of this would be a three he not only passed off for a better look but the way he faked it for a split second to create more room for the recipient (being Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) who would go on to make the shot.
Looking towards the other end, we see Johnson with a solid enough closeout on Marial Shayok in the corner. The Philly rookie then proceeds to attempt a drive, but Stanley can use his strength and IQ to redirect Shayok away from the rim and back towards the perimeter. This makes Marial uncomfortable, as can be seen by him taking a long-contested two instead of looking to pass it when there was still enough time on the clock.
When playing, Johnson has typically served as a primary ball-handler for Toronto. While I have no complaints with that, for him to garner a bigger role in the primary rotation in the future (which, given his player option, is not totally out the window just yet), he will have to improve some aspects of his game. To be specific, better shooting, shot selection, and willingness to move the ball around for more fluid offence.
These are all traits he has shown flashes of, we just need it on a more consistent basis while also seeing more of that defence that has kept him in the league up to this point. I do hope Johnson can find a role in this league, and there’s no better place than Toronto. Maybe this game was a one-time instance, but there is just as big a chance that it wasn’t. Toronto is one of the best places for player development, and if Johnson can start reaping the benefits of this organization then I don’t doubt that it will start to show.