AUBURN HILLS – Stanley Johnson is still surrounded by the same force field of confidence that accompanied him to the NBA, but there’s something a little different – a little wiser, a little more contemplative – about him now.
He senses the same about his newly constituted team, which returns several key figures but has changed just enough over the off-season to recast the chemistry.
“To come back here and see all the maturity we have this year, I can just tell. From the day I got here, I was like, this just feels different. Everything’s a little different.”
A new face, yet a familiar face, Anthony Tolliver, has been a catalyst in establishing a more businesslike focus, Johnson believes.
“A.T. is probably the ring leader, that just really mature leader,” Johnson said of Tolliver, who signed as a free agent one year after leaving for Sacramento via the same route. “Avery Bradley brings a great sense of leadership to our team, just how focused he is in his job and his work ethic. I think everybody came back a little more mature – Andre (Drummond), myself, Reggie (Jackson), Reggie Bullock, Tobias (Harris) obviously, always. Langston Galloway is tremendous for us, just brings a great feel.”
Johnson, empowered by the opportunity he sees after Marcus Morris was the cost to acquire Bradley from Boston, is – at 21 – ready to shoulder more of the load and to become part of a collaborative leadership voice.
“I have to at this point,” he said. “I feel like I’m a person who is knowledgeable of things now. There’s really no excuses for me. I’m still really, really young in the league, but this is my third year so this is my junior year. I think junior year I got my license in high school, so you’re all alone. For me, I think I’ve learned a lot of respect from the guys here. I think we all respect each other. For me, it’s just all about playing hard, playing smart and playing together and individually, just doing what I do.”
Johnson comes to camp noticeably leaner than a year ago after a focused summer of work at the P3 training facility in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Johnson now has a home to be able to make full use of the staff and facilities he’s found so helpful to building his body and his game.
“They have it all down to a science – literally,” Johnson said. “They knew exactly what I wanted to be at. I told them I wanted to be not really, really strong but really quick and I feel like I’m both, especially when I get my legs under me. I’m down in weight and I’m in shape, but there ain’t nothing like running the court, ain’t nothing like playing and having to jump. For me, it’s all about getting up and down and getting my game legs and when that happens, I’ll really know where I’m at.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Johnson’s summer, he said, was a greater understanding of what his niche will be, of how he’ll unlock the vast potential others have seen in Johnson since he was a nationally heralded high school phenom.
“This sounds crazy, but the first thing for me is I’m just a lot more knowledgeable of the shots I should be shooting and the shots I shouldn’t be shooting,” he said. “I feel like I have a better grip on what spots I need to get to, what spots I can get to without trying to force things. A lot of stuff last year, I was predetermined to put it on the deck.”
Johnson and all of his teammates except Boban Marjanovic – playing with the Serbian national team in the EuroBasket semifinals today with the championship game set for Sunday – have taken part in voluntary workouts at their practice facility since Labor Day week. In those sessions, Johnson has seen the benefits of his long hours in the gym this summer.
“The first couple of weeks of this, it’s good to see the ball go in the net. Even if I’m not making them some days, it’s good to see that these are the spots and the shots I need to shoot.”
One thing Johnson did far less of this summer: play competitive basketball. There was a great burst of attention for his 86-point explosion in an OVO Bounce game, but that was one of just three games – one in his beloved Drew League, two in OVO Bounce – Johnson played all summer, including one-on-one competitions. It was all about sculpting his body and refining his skills, a focus encouraged by Stan Van Gundy.
And along the way, he’s acquired the knowledge and maturity to complement the boundless confidence that still surrounds him.
“When you get in the NBA, this is a monster to deal with. And everything isn’t always what it seems,” he said. “So you’ve got to have a lot of faith in yourself to survive. That’s what I’ve learned the first two years. No matter what happens, I worked really, really hard this summer. If something happens where I don’t have as good a season as I expected, I know I did the right things and I’ll use the year as a year to be better. But this year I’m confident with the opportunity I have – with the roster opened up – I’ll get a chance to show what I can do at multiple positions, like what I was drafted here to be. I think life will be a lot easier on me with this much opportunity out there. I just have to make sure I apply myself and do what I’m supposed to do to show the coaching staff I’m ready for this position.”