Stanley Johnson snatched the ball from his opponent like he tugged a toy out of his dog’s mouth. In a matter of fact-tone, the forward howled, “Gimme that fu***** ball!”
It was the dog days of July. Droves of street ballers and NBA players culminated in the humid, circus-like atmosphere at the Drew League. Johnson was a seemingly immortal performer. His show consisted of through the legs crossovers, three-point heaves, and defensive clamps on NBA wannabes.
To go along with the moves, Johnson begets the profile. Armed with ballooned arm muscles, sculpted calves, and pogo-stick athleticism, he bears semblance to star small-forwards.
These traits once lured scouts. His potential versatility was persuasive too. Shape-shifting between power and small forward was once tenable.
Yet the utility he flashes from time-to-time is a faction inside a titanic problem: ball-handling during shot creation. His assist to usage rate suggests lack of shot creation, at 0.53, which placed in the bottom 34 percentile of players (per Cleaning the Glass).
Johnson’s level of creativity is stifled by his inability to read and adjust to defenders.
A standard defensive mantra is to force players baseline. Sometimes, Johnson falls into traps.
Johnson makes an in and out dribble, which gives time for the defense to recover. With Lowry on him, he could have gone right and backed down the smaller player—he is a half ruler taller and small dog heavier than the guard. The sloth speed of the move allowed Lowry to read it and jump out to Griffin.
When he takes what the defense gives him, his rashness and predictability exposes him. Solid defenders like Lowry pray on non-ball handlers in transition and act accordingly.
Even when he does read a defense sufficiently, his dribbling holds him back:
For a 6’7’’ forward, Johnson is not a poor ball-handler. He keeps his eyes up and is capable of performing elementary dribble moves. Being able to make a move is discourse from making a move that defenders are forced to adjust to.
Johnson draws up the moves in his head, before they even manifest on the court — like he’s playing against a band of musical chairs, not actual defenders.
At times, Johnson’s work is cut out for him, all he has to do is sidestep poor rim defenders. There are instances where Johnson goes out of his way to draw a foul. Instead of using his athleticism to dodge or explode, he dives into Kanter.
His sheer athleticism is no match for transition awareness. He shies away from contact, which impacts his ability to finish on the move. Johnson scored 1.02 points in transition, placing in the bottom 35.4 percentile of players (per Synergy).
Knowing who he’s up against and using moves he can grab out his right pocket (and left for good measure), Johnson can get easy buckets near the rim.
However, there are too many times he gets caught in the air, oblivious of his next move. Lacking even a safety valve as a left hand, Johnson’s options are slim pickings.
By having an array of moves at his disposal, Johnson can pick and choose where and when he uses them. By no means does that mean Stanley has to become ambidextrous, but more balanced hand-usage keeps the defense guessing. Waning out the anticipated, while staying true to his colors, Johnson can be an elastic forward option.
Part of what makes him so easy to defend is his jump-shot. Defenders can sag off with no worry.
The reason he came up short is due in large part to a re-load once he gets the ball. If Johnson was shot-ready before he got the ball, he would smoothly rise up. Instead, his form is mechanical.
His feet are practically glued to a spot on the floor.
Rarely in a stance ready for a shot, Johnson finds himself loitering in the corner.
When he does change gears, it’s fruitless, circling the arc with no purpose.
For a player that plants himself in the corner so often, he is defective from there. He shot 29.2% on left corner threes and 30.8% on right corner threes (per NBA.com/stats).
His passing and shooting ability put a cap on his potential. At this level, forwards are secondary or tertiary creators. And if they can’t create, they shoot and cut.
Stanley Johnson cut just 14 times, landing in the 23.8 percentile (per Synergy) and shot 58.3% from the field on cuts. For a creating-impaired player, cutting is a more accessible scoring outlet.
Of players who had an assist rating below 9%, turnover rating above 10%, 3-point percentage below 30%, and field goal percentage below 40%, Johnson was the only one player to surpass 1000 minutes (Basketball-Reference). He played 1894 minutes and started 50 games. Alongside him on that list were Damien Wilkins and Josh Huestis, among other fringe NBA players.
As a player with little to no offensive fortitude, his career hinges on a thread of false hope. To note, this was by far Stanley’s worst season as a shooter.
Johnson shot 28.6% from deep, 34% from 10–16, and 22.7% from 3–10 feet (per Basketball-Reference).
In his fourth year, you have to wonder if he is already cemented as a poor on and off-ball threat. The turnover of regime could spell dividends for Johnson.
Pigeonholed as both a 2 and 3 (40% minutes at the 2) in Van Gundy’s monstars lineups his first two seasons (which I delve into here), Johnson settled in as a permanent 3 in 2017–18. In the off-season and draft, Detroit collected a loot of guards and forwards that could steal minutes at forward.
The Glenn Robinson III signing is a ticking time bomb for Johnson. The message is clear: realize your potential or be supplanted by a similar player. The signing should be a wake up call for Johnson. His job is in danger if he doesn’t step outside his comfort zone offensively.
Moving Johnson to the bench is a quick fix. The starting lineup already has two behemoths gnawing up space around the basket. Surrounding the forward with shooters sugarcoats a weakness.
In a new system, the slate is wiped clean. Johnson gets a chance to remodel his offensive game. Dwane Casey totes a playbook with pick and roll variations that could unlock Johnson’s potential.
But Johnson’s pathway to success is paved by himself. After all, the only way to excel in a system is to be talented enough for it in the first place.
Statistics courtesy Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, and NBA.com/stats.