Stan Van Gundy knows Stanley Johnson can become an elite perimeter defender and, truth is, he might not be all that far away. On offense, the outcome is a little more open ended. But what if Johnson can become a league average 3-point shooter?
“Oh, my God,” Van Gundy said. “That would – yeah, that elevates him to a whole ’nuther level as a player. No question about it.”
The league average so far this season: .358, right in line with where it’s fallen the last several seasons. Johnson’s 3-point percentage so far this season: .333. But throw out the opening-night stinker when Johnson shot 0 for 13 overall and 0 for 6 from the arc and in nine games since Johnson is shooting .394 from deep.
In only two games since the opener has Johnson failed to make at least one triple. In back-to-back games on last week’s road trip, he made three 3-pointers including in the win at Golden State.
But even he endured the oh-fer against Charlotte to start his third NBA season, it spoke volumes that Van Gundy left him out for more than 40 minutes.
“When you come off a game of 40-plus minutes where you’re 0 for 13, the one thing you should be able to figure out is it’s not all about shooting so you’ve got to keep doing other things,” Van Gundy said. “We left you out on the floor missing 13 shots, so there’s obviously other stuff that we think’s important.”
When Van Gundy was asked after the Pistons beat Sacramento – holding an opponent under 100 points for the fourth time in five home games, the exception a 122-101 win over Minnesota – about Avery Bradley’s impact on the Pistons defensive mentality, he quickly added Johnson’s name to the conversation.
“I think he’s changed the demeanor of our team. I would give him a good part of the credit, but I think Stanley being in the starting lineup has helped.”
Van Gundy is having Johnson guard the opposition’s top forward, which means over the past 10 days he’s guarded Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He limited Durant to 14 shot attempts, though Durant – 4 inches taller and able to get shots off against virtually any defender – made 10 and scored 28 points.
“There’s no comfortable guarding K.D.,” Johnson said after the game. “That’s non-existent. On players that are All-Star caliber players, I’m going to do my damndest, give it effort, follow the game plan, contest every shot. I’ve got to do that stuff every night.”
After holding Antetokounmpo under his league-leading scoring average of 31 points – 29 points on 27 shots, well below his normal efficiency – and limited his overall impact (four rebounds and as many turnovers, three, as assists), Johnson still seemed less than pleased with everything except the win.
“I don’t think I did a good job on him,” he said. “I think we won the game, though. We played him tough.”
Johnson, who missed Monday’s practice with a hip flexor injury not expected to sideline for long if at all, is averaging 8.5 points in 31 minutes a game so far. Both his 3-point and mid-range, off-the-dribble shots are falling more often than in his subpar second season, when he struggled to find the balance between aggressiveness and recklessness.
“Making good, solid plays for the most part,” Van Gundy said. “For the most part, his turnovers have been travels. He’s got to get his footwork under control, but I think he’s played pretty solid basketball.”
And if he keeps his 3-point shooting at or above league average, the Pistons are going to have themselves the player they envisioned when they spent the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft on the precocious Arizona freshman.