AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons moved decisively when the opportunity to add Avery Bradley was presented. But don’t infer that it was easy to part with Marcus Morris, the price required to get him.
Stan Van Gundy appreciated everything about Morris, from his toughness to his accountability. Beyond that, he wasn’t exactly sure he had an in-house candidate to soak up his minutes. What he knew was that it was time to find out what the Pistons had to show for the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft.
Stanley Johnson seemed ready, after two years of flexing headstrong ways, to apply his stubbornness in more selective and productive ways and bend to the will of Van Gundy and his coaching staff in areas where he had come to appreciate help. Stubborn Stanley is melding with Suggestible Stanley in ways that promise to benefit the 2017-18 version of Van Gundy’s Pistons.
In the nearly three months since Morris was traded to present Johnson a gaping opportunity to assume a greater role, Van Gundy has felt nothing but positive vibes radiating from Johnson.
“He was very professional all summer in terms of not only his workouts but his communication with people on the staff,” Van Gundy said. “Being where he said he was going to be, all of those things. He’s taken a step forward to where he’s just a more mature man. He’s just been a lot easier to communicate with.”
Johnson, not coincidentally, also mentioned communication as critical to opening doors that kept slamming on his fingertips the past two seasons. Van Gundy’s observation about “very professional” stand in contrast to the player suspended one game last season for, essentially, not always living to that standard.
“Last year was more a mental thing than it was a physical thing,” he said. “My communication level with the coaches now has put me in position to play more. I made some adjustments myself.”
In the wake of the Morris trade, Van Gundy talked to Johnson about what it meant for him.
“All we talked about then was the opportunity it presented for him and then we have talked about his role and the primary part of that is his defense,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got to be a guy that goes out and locks in against really good perimeter players every night. He and Avery have got to be the guys who take on the two best perimeter players every night. We need everybody to do their job, but those guys really need to lock in.”
Bradley has a long resume – seven years in the league – that carries with it the reputation of an elite defender. In the same way Bradley can help Luke Kennard develop by going against him every day in practice, the expectation is that he’ll spur Johnson’s growth as an elite defender by raising the bar of expectation for him.
“I think we can definitely be that duo,” Bradley said. “I’ve seen a young guy that is very talented and trying to figure out what exactly he does special. And I think that is one of the things he is able to do special for this team – guard, get down every single night and guard the best three man or two man every single night. I think Stanley is a freak athlete and a very good kid and I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
It came as no surprise to the Pistons that Johnson arrived with an aura of supreme confidence after they drafted him two Junes ago. Sean Miller, who coached Johnson at Arizona, is one of Van Gundy’s closest coaching confidantes. Then-Pistons video coordinator Samson Kayode knew Johnson well for their time together at USA Basketball. Van Gundy all along viewed Johnson’s will as a plus – all while understanding it would take some time to puncture it when needed to impart bits of NBA-level wisdom.
“I mean, there’s a lot of really good players who have that trait,” Van Gundy said. “It’s just a matter of doing what you have to. He’s been a lot better with that.”