Coming up to a crossroads season, Johnson in line for bigger Pistons role

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com today starts a five-part series looking at the biggest questions looming over the Pistons as they prepare for training camp to open this month. Today’s question: Is Stanley Johnson poised to pick up where his rookie season left off and play starter’s minutes?)

Stanley Johnson was the top rookie in Orlando’s Summer League two years ago and scored 26 points against Indiana in 2015’s first preseason game. It didn’t take much for Pistons fans to convince themselves the franchise had landed its next star.

If his rookie season didn’t conclusively prove as much, it also didn’t cast that notion aside. Johnson was Stan Van Gundy’s sixth man, had games where he was the Pistons best player and endeared himself to fans with roots in the Bad Boys era by standing up to LeBron James in a hotly contested first-round playoff series.

Given the broad and narrow history, a great leap forward in year two seemed within reach. Players often take their biggest leap between years one and two, after all, and Johnson, drafted a month after his 19th birthday, had a personal history of precociousness as both the leader of a four-time high school state champion and the alpha male on three gold-medal USA Basketball teams.

Instead, Johnson struggled through a frustrating season that matched his team’s fall from 44 wins and the postseason to 37 and the lottery. He shot 35 percent overall and became hesitant and error prone with the ball in his hands.

It’s probably overly dramatic to call 2017-18 a crossroads year for Johnson, but not by much. The Pistons traded Marcus Morris to get Avery Bradley as a response to their dwindling expectation to retaining Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a deal that relocates Johnson from “luxury” to “necessity.”

Given Stan Van Gundy’s expectation that Johnson will guard the opposition’s top scoring forward, it’s more likely than not that Johnson will start. If not, he’ll still be in line for a major role. But he’ll need to perform better at the offensive end in order to keep it.

Over the summer, Johnson scored 86 points in the championship game of the OVO Bounce pro-am tournament, including a 16-point outburst in 20 seconds to force overtime in a game that featured a handful of NBA players. What does it mean? We’ll see, but it at least suggests Johnson hasn’t been stripped of his alpha DNA.

Van Gundy has ideas of how to better use Johnson. He should be more at home being guarded by small forwards or power forwards. Johnson appeared lean and explosive when he practiced with the Pistons Summer League team and that – superb conditioning – is a key to unlocking the elite defensive potential and transition-offense impact he possesses.

Johnson figures to get a little more leash without Morris around and with Van Gundy determined to get to a broad assessment of the first No. 1 pick he made as Pistons president. Johnson cops to being a bit headstrong but at points during his second season and again after the season admitted he’d miscalculated in some areas and took actions to be more open to suggestions.

The early returns, in Johnson’s words and deeds over the summer, all point to a positive outcome. After a disappointing second season, he needs it. So do the Pistons.

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