Stanley Johnson is in the worst part of every NBA rookie’s life.
It’s been two months since he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, and there’s another month to go before training camp begins. No matter how hard he works, between the Pistons practice facility, a training center in California and his visits back to the University of Arizona, it won’t be real until Media Day, when he’ll put his No. 3 jersey on with all his teammates and start working with Stan Van Gundy.
The wait has even been harder for Johnson, who lost his mother to cancer earlier this month. Karen Taylor had accompanied Johnson to the draft and wept when her son was picked eighth by the Pistons. Now though, she won’t get to fulfill the dream of seeing him play in the NBA (via Pistons.com):
“It’s been tough,” he said Thursday after a workout at the Pistons practice facility. “I had a couple of family things going on, but I’m a professional. I have a job. So I handle my family stuff. I got a lot of help, as well. That’s something that will always be, the rest of my life, but I’m doing my job now. It is what it is.”
Johnson has gotten some support by going back to Arizona, and drew a little criticism last weekend over a SnapChat video that showed him pointing a toy gun at a friend. But he’s also had the huge advantage of being drafted by a team where he already has a close friend in Andre Drummond.
Drummond and Johnson have known each other since their AAU days, and have been training together this summer in California:
“It’s unique,” he said of their relationship. “I’ve known Andre for a while and to be on the same team is almost kind of weird. It’s like, look where life has taken us. He wants me to live with him this year, so that should be interesting to see what happens there. That’s one of my really good friends.”
Drummond knows all about adjusting to life in the NBA as a teenager, and the benefits to not doing it alone. His mother came to Detroit and lived with him as he grew into both a gold medalist at the FIBA World Cup and someone finally able to legally drink.
During that period, instead of getting into any major problems, Drummond’s biggest misdeed was posting a picture of himself driving to practice at nearly 100 mph. Not a great idea, but like Johnson’s SnapChat adventure, also not a harmful one.
Living with Drummond could provide Johnson with the off-the-court stability and support that he won’t be able to get from his own mother.
On the court, though, Johnson certainly doesn’t need anyone to boost his confidence. On draft night, he announced that, while he was the eighth player taken, he was the best player available all night. And while the Pistons are hoping to get the playoff berth that fans and ownership demand, he has bigger goals in mind (via Detroit Free Press):
“We just don’t want to get in as the eighth-seed,” said rookie forward Stanley Johnson. “We’re trying to put our efforts forth to win a championship every year that we’re here. I think any guy that’s interested in winning would want to be here. I think we’re a team of substance instead of flash. As long as we’re doing our job every day I think our fans will come and we have to focus on basketball instead of selling tickets.”
Championships are probably a better long-term goal for the Pistons, but Johnson already has a firm grasp on what good Detroit basketball has always been about. Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the Bad Boys were all about substance over flash, while the 2004 championship team is the only one in recent years to win without a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan.
Before anything, though, Johnson needs to get his game up to NBA speed. Detroit’s biggest weakness going into training camp is at small forward, where Van Gundy wasn’t able to add anyone more productive than Marcus Morris. While Morris is busy fighting with the Phoenix fans and pining for his brother, Johnson has a chance to grab the job right from the start.
If he can do that, providing a serious perimeter threat along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ersan Ilyasova, it’ll let Reggie Jackson and Drummond chew teams up with the pick-and-roll. That moment is when Van Gundy’s plans start to bear fruit.