There were moments when Stanley Johnson looked like an NBA veteran in his debut with the Pistons Tuesday night, and there were moments when he looked exactly like the rookie he is.
But overall, coach Stan Van Gundy was pleased with the play of Detroit’s first-round draft pick in this summer’s draft. The mistakes Johnson made can certainly be fixed, and he exhibited an important and intangible quality that cannot be taught: competitiveness.
“You saw a real competitive guy, and I think that’s the main thing,” Van Gundy said. “The guy’s really, really competitive. That’s a competitor. The mistakes, we’ll keep working on.
“I thought his will was so strong that at times he was forcing plays and things, but I’d rather deal with that. He’s a tough guy and I think that showed through tonight.”
Johnson racked up more than 33 minutes of play in the Pistons’ preseason opening loss to the Pacers and led Detroit in scoring with 26 points. He also had three rebounds and four assists, and was faced with the daunting task of guarding one of the league’s best forwards, Paul George.
Johnson didn’t shy away from the challenge, though.
George did lead all scorers with 32 points, but Johnson showed his defensive versatility alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. With the addition of point guard Reggie Jackson, who missed Tuesday’s game because of a sore right Achilles, the Pistons’ perimeter defense appears to be very promising heading into the regular season.
“That’s a lot of versatility and a lot of size, and if we get some stops, it’s going to be a lot of pressure getting back because we can all shoot,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a small forward, also saw time at point guard in Jackson’s absence. Johnson was stripped a few times by Toney Douglas, an impressive on-the-ball defender, but Van Gundy acknowledged that the Pistons’ best stretch of the game occurred when Johnson was playing point.
It was just one more nod to Johnson’s offensive and defensive versatility.
“I came in here talking about how I can do so many things versatility-wise, and now you gotta do it,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I did as good of a job as I should’ve. I think there are three plays that stood out to me that I think lost the game for us.”
Johnson had six turnovers in the Pistons’ narrow 115-112 loss to the Pacers, but as Van Gundy acknowledged, those mistakes can be fixed. More important, Johnson received valuable experience playing with and against some of the best players in the league.
“I think any time you get on the court, you’re able to get NBA-game feeling, it’s always positive,” Johnson said. “Playing against a superstar, Paul George, kind of seeing what that’s like, is always positive. I think just playing, just being able to play on the court, I think knowledge is power. The more experience I get, the faster I can learn, the faster I can be great.”
The 19-year-old certainly showed he has the potential to be great, and his willingness to learn and play competitively indicates he could have an exciting rookie season and bright future with the Pistons.