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Throughout his career, Stanley Johnson has been something of an enigma.
In his time with the Detroit Pistons, Johnson saw a lot of ups and downs. At times, he’s looked like a player worthy of the eighth overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. However, his minutes were inconsistent, his role was never properly defined, and he was never able to put it together for long stretches.
The Pistons had a notoriously poor track record for player development in the 2010’s, and have since changed their management and placed more of a focus on the youth movement. Unfortunately for Johnson, he was caught up in their poor development system, and it led to his growth briefly being stunted.
Johnson signed with the Toronto Raptors in July of 2019. In his first season, he played sparingly, and even had a stint with the Raptors 905. His second year brought on a bigger role, eventually becoming a bench rotation regular.
Here’s an important thing to remember: despite having six years of league experience, Stanley was still just the fourth-youngest player on the team this past season, ahead of rookies Malachi Flynn (23) and Jalen Harris (22), as well as Gary Trent Jr. (22).
His 25th birthday was only last week, and it’s easy to forget he joined the league as a raw 18 year-old kid. His past season was not perfect – far from it – but he continued to progress as the season went on, and flashed a lot of positives to indicate there still may be more room to improve. Even if the raw stats don’t show it, he has arguably shown more growth over the past two seasons with the Raptors than he did in his first four with Detroit.
Since coming to the organization, the Raptors’ approach has basically been to wipe the slate clean and work with Johnson as if it were his first year in the league.
One thing is undeniably apparent: Stanley Johnson is a seriously talented athlete, and he has the tools to be a solid NBA player with the right mindset and a strong development system.
With a weak 2021 free agent class in tow and the team in need of affordable but valuable talent, could the Raptors call upon their own development program and keep Johnson in the fold? With so many other development projects on their hands, is it worth investing the time and resources into him in the hopes he continues on his upward trajectory?
There are a few things to consider with Johnson, in terms of where he can continue to grow, masking his weaknesses, and putting it all together nightly:
The defensive end has always been Stanley Johnson’s calling card. This season, he upped the ante and showed the Raptors exactly why.
He averaged nearly a steal a game in just 16 minutes a night.
Per Basketball Reference, Johnson posted a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 1.0, which would rank him in the top 30 players across the league for players that posted at least 1000 total minutes this season. He also posted the highest defensive win shares of his career in the second-fewest minutes this past year.
Johnson’s physical build is practically prototypical for what an NBA defender should be in the year 2021. He stands at six-foot-six, but boasts a near-seven-foot wingspan. He is speedy enough to guard players out on the perimeter, and springy enough to contest shots and make life difficult for opponents. Yet, at the same time, he’s got a stocky build similar to OG Anunoby and can guard post-ups.
Simply put, Johnson is a defensive Swiss Army knife, and for the most part, he uses his tools well, and showed much improved defensive awareness this season.
Take this clip, for example:
Stanley Johnson is playing the five in this rotation next to Pascal Siakam. The Raptors are in a zone and Johnson is essentially playing like a free safety in the paint.
He rotates over to give help to Fred VanVleet, who is caught in a post mismatch with Miles Bridges, who finds Bismack Biyombo in the dunker spot.
Johnson is able to use his athleticism to recover, swats Biyombo’s shot off the backboard, and knocks down a pull-up three at the other end. As they come back on defence, before Biyombo can even get set for a hand-off, he pokes the ball out of bounds and breaks up the play before it even begins.
Nick Nurse was able to find creative ways to deploy Johnson’s versatility defensively throughout the season, and he responded to the challenge. He can guard virtually anywhere on the floor, and these are the toolsy defenders NBA teams like to have on their roster.
Of course, there are two sides of the ball to be played, but as far as this side goes, Johnson is proving he belongs. That alone is worthy of being part of an NBA rotation in some capacity.
Improving Offensive Awareness
While Stanley was solid defensively this past season, his offensive game is still very much a work in progress.
Early in his career, Johnson had a broken shot, no handles to speak of, and a penchant for wild and erratic drives. By many metrics, Stanley was a net negative offensively this past season.
While he is far from a finished product on this end, there were improvements this past season, and for the first time in his career, there is a path forward for him to become a capable offensive player.
While Stanley shot only 38 percent from the floor this season overall, he averaged career highs in three-point and free-throw shooting at 33 and 80 percent, respectively. As a result, he posted the best true shooting percentage of his career at 52 percent.
This is still a few percentage points below league average, but there was marked improvement. Johnson thrived in a specialist role off the bench as a defensive stopper who would get buckets in transition — over 20 percent of his total offence came off of turnovers.
While there were growing pains throughout the season, Johnson put together his best stretch in the final three games of the season, where the Raptors gave him free reign to test out his offensive game.
He delivered, averaging 24.7 points per game in that stretch, including a 35-point gem against the Chicago Bulls:
The Stanley Johnson of three or four years ago would not have made half the plays he made in this clip. Though the end result was meaningless for the team, it was a great display for Johnson.
Johnson has always shown flashes as a facilitator, but the turnovers were an issue. This year, he averaged a career-best 1.65 assist-to-turnover ratio and occasionally made some brilliant plays, but still posted a 17.4 percent turnover rate.
In a January game against the Miami Heat, we even saw a bit of Point Stanley action in the fourth quarter with a VanVleet-plus-bench lineup:
His offensive awareness is getting there. It’s by no means perfect yet, but he’s getting there.
For the first time in Johnson’s career, he is actually being developed offensively, incorporating skills bit by bit. The Raptors have nurtured him carefully on this end, putting him in positions to succeed and ensuring his confidence remains high.
The Pistons would give him the ball and expect him to figure it out, and that just doesn’t always work for development. When they fail, it rattles them, and with his minutes being jerked around, it’s an easy way to destroy a young player’s confidence.
Stanley Johnson has certainly shown he is capable of becoming an above-average offensive player with continued development, and it’s up to the Raptors to decide if they want to take him there.
While it’s a little bit more difficult to quantify consistency, it’s been the biggest hurdle that has kept Johnson from being a full-time fixture in the rotation.
Throughout the last eight games of the season, the Raptors gave him more minutes to allow him to get in-game reps and flash his abilities. As mentioned earlier, Johnson had a strong finish in his final three games.
The five games before that? Not so much. He played 20 minutes or more in four of those games, scoring a total of 14 points while committing 6 turnovers and 17 fouls. Any stretch where you have more personal fouls than points is objectively not a very good one.
This has been a defining attribute of Johnson’s game, marred at times by inconsistency in his play. It’s part of the reason why he is so enigmatic, particularly this year. Occasionally, he will display flashes of brilliance, making incredible reads and playing with extreme composure. On the very next play, he might force up a wild shot or throw a behind-the-back pass to nobody in particular.
Granted, he’s cleaned up that aspect of his game this year; he’s cut back on his turnovers slightly, upped his efficiency, and posted some of the best defensive numbers of his career. Part of being a full-time rotation member means that these stretches can’t happen regularly.
As he continues to work on his skills, and if he can put it together for longer stretches, he should have no issues sliding into a full-time bench spot.
The Verdict: Should They Keep Him?
For the right price, absolutely.
The Raptors figure to have their hands full with development projects for the season between Trent, Harris, Flynn, Anunoby, and their incoming 2021 draft picks. It is projected to be a season where the Raptors attempt to simultaneously develop talent and compete to the best of their ability.
Johnson signed a two-year deal worth approximately 7.4 million dollars, and I expect his next contract to be about the same. If the Raptors are able to sign him in the ballpark of four million dollars annually for one or two years, it would certainly be worth keeping him around. Of course, money will talk, and he could command more from other teams, but there is the appeal of continuity and the chance to have a consistent role on the team.
It would be disingenuous to simply write him off and say that he is what he is at this point. The Raptors have one of the top development programs in the league, which we’ve highlighted previously, and players typically see their biggest breakout in Year Three of the program.
The Raptors have a knack for mining talent from virtually anywhere in the league, and Johnson certainly has the ability to continue his feel-good story and make an impact with his continued development next year.