AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons spent the majority of last season as a top-10 defensive team before settling at No. 11. Better than average, not good enough from Stan Van Gundy’s perspective. Even in an era that tilts toward offense, he’s of a mind that the basis for success starts with a top-10 defense.
And for the Pistons to be that this season, Stanley Johnson is essential.
“I think now we have a chance to become an elite defensive team and Stanley’s a huge part of that,” Van Gundy said. “And then I think it’s for him to really find his offensive game and it takes some guys some time.”
News over the weekend that Johnson scored a preposterous 86 points – including 16 in the final 20 seconds of regulation to force overtime – to lead his team to the championship of the pro-am OVO Bounce tournament in Toronto would indicate Johnson is, perhaps, finding his offensive game.
But Van Gundy remains convinced the portal to the type of NBA role Johnson envisions for himself through which he must pass begins with a focus at the defensive end.
It goes too far to suggest Johnson was a luxury for the Pistons last season, but if he wasn’t playing well – and there were stretches he struggled mightily – Van Gundy had fairly simple workarounds. But with Marcus Morris gone to Boston in the trade that netted Avery Bradley, Johnson moves up the food chain as he enters his third season at 21.
“Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, his primary role will be to guard the best forward or a big two guard every night,” Van Gundy said. “Avery will take on the challenge of guarding the best guard every night and then Andre (Drummond) will take on more responsibility as a defender and that’s our way to becoming an elite defensive team.”
Van Gundy’s blueprint for Johnson runs along a parallel track as his wishes for the Pistons: establish a presence on defense first and use that as a launching pad for all-around excellence. He brings up two certified All-Stars, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, as examples, being careful to qualify the analogies.
Because while Johnson has many of the physical qualities that Butler and Leonard have translated into greatness, their paths to the NBA were vastly different. Johnson was winning gold medals as a leader of USA Basketball age-group teams long before he landed at Arizona as a McDonald’s All-American or became the eighth pick in the 2015 draft a month after turning 19.
“So Kawhi was the 15th pick (two years after choosing San Diego State over similarly low-profile offers) and Jimmy a lot lower than that,” Van Gundy said. “Where Stanley is now, Jimmy Butler was just headed to Marquette. I think I say that for everybody – for our fans, for Stanley and for myself. Stanley’s going into his third NBA season. At the same age, Jimmy Butler was leaving junior college and heading to Marquette. I bring up his name and Kawhi only with Stanley to understand that their willingness to accept a role, in my opinion, had a lot to do with them becoming stars as it came. Trying to do it all at once is maybe not the best approach.”
Johnson’s boundless pride fosters a stubbornness – a quality he freely admits to – that has sometimes proven an impediment to progress. Johnson admitted to that, too, midway through his second-season struggles, admitting he needed to be a more receptive student. Van Gundy has kept in touch with Johnson and planned a trek to California to check in with him for early this month, but has been pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“There’s two things with him: getting himself physically ready – looked really good earlier in the summer and has gotten his weight down – but then where he is mentally. One of the things you’ve got to watch with him is that his idea on how to become a great player is to do more and more and more and have a bigger and bigger and bigger role. In a lot of cases, that’s not the way it’s worked.
“Stanley’s got to latch on to what he does well right now and what he can be is an elite-level defender, an elite-level rebounder for a wing guy and he’s shown he can make the corner three and then build his offensive game from there instead of taking an approach that he wants to do it all in one step and just be a star.”
He’s going to get every opportunity come late September and through training camp to show he deserves the starting spot Morris vacated and is on a path to become the type of defensive force Van Gundy sees in him. And if that happens, the Pistons will be one step closer to meeting their coach’s expectations at the defensive end.
“We were better last year and we were a good defensive team, but now I think we have a chance to become an elite defensive team and Stanley’s a huge part of that.”