AUBURN HILLS — Stanley Johnson doesn’t quite have the hang of NBA preseason games.
The Detroit Pistons rookie found himself on the floor in the third quarter Tuesday night in what should’ve been a tough situation. He was playing point guard – a position he doesn’t play – on one end of the floor and guarding Indiana’s Paul George at the other end. That would be a lot for a veteran, and Johnson was in his first NBA game.
He was having the time of his life.
Despite a makeshift lineup that had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard, Reggie Bullock at small forward, Marcus Morris at power forward and Andre Drummond at center, the Pistons scored 39 points in the quarter and Johnson didn’t want it to stop.
“That’s a great lineup, and we were blowing the Pacers off the floor,” Johnson said after the game. “At first, I couldn’t figure out why Coach took us out, because we would’ve won easily, but I guess it was just a preseason game, so it didn’t matter.”
Johnson is so new to the league that he was actually disappointed that the Pistons lost 115-112, and even threw himself on his sword.
“I didn’t do as good a job as I should have,” he said. “I think there were three plays that really stood out and where I think I lost us the game. I had two turnovers at the top of the frontcourt and one with two or three seconds left on the shot clock.
“You lose games doing that stuff.”
Johnson did have six turnovers, but he also put up 26 points and got to the free throw line nine times in his first game.
As he talked, his veteran teammates were getting dressed and heading out into a chilly Motown night, having learned some lessons from the game – Stan Van Gundy had reminded them that playing defense once in awhile would be a good idea – but not worrying about the score.
Johnson was still picking apart his game, talking about two shots he’d rushed in the first quarter.
That’s why Van Gundy never considered taking highly regarded Justise Winslow over Johnson with the eighth pick.
“I certainly saw some rookie mistakes tonight, but I also saw a great competitor,” Van Gundy said. “The mistakes are something we can work on, but his will to win is so strong that he’s already picking up everything we ask of him.
“Tonight, he probably wanted a little too badly to win, and he forced a couple things, but that’s fine. This is the time to learn that stuff.”
Van Gundy hadn’t heard Johnson’s comments, but they reflected exactly what he likes in his new small forward. Here’s a 19-year-old kid who didn’t blink when asked to play point guard and go head-up on the other end against one of the NBA’s best players.
“That’s just basketball,” Johnson said. “Everyone talks about how this is the greatest basketball league in the world and that it is crazy fast for a rookie, but we’re still playing the same game. Obviously, these are the best, and anytime you get a chance to guard a superstar like Paul George, it is a huge learning experience.
“Knowledge is power, and the best teacher is experience. The more experience I get, the faster I learn, and the faster I can be great.”
Johnson is never going to sell himself short – he said on draft night that he was the best player on the board, and he’s never changed his mind.
Confidence, though, is just what the Pistons need as they try to end their long postseason drought. They haven’t had much swagger since the Chauncey Billups/Ben Wallace team broke up, and Johnson brings some of that back. Better yet, he puts the work in to back up his talking.