Winning was the standard for the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, and even newcomers who didn’t receive rings defended the title as if it was theirs. With injuries to all but one of their main rotation players, everyone got their turn to contribute and shine.
The lone exception was Stanley Johnson, who signed a modest two-year deal the morning after Kawhi Leonard fled overnight to the Los Angeles Clippers. The 2015 No. 8 pick was the Raptors’ biggest signing that summer, but he was quickly buried on the bench. Head coach Nick Nurse specifically singled out Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson during preseason for not living up to their reputations as shutdown defenders, and while Hollis-Jefferson shed that label and became a fan favourite with several memorable shifts, there was no such redemption for Johnson.
Johnson was on the fringes of the rotation to begin the year, made a mess of those scant minutes he received, was sidelined with a groin injury, and didn’t see any extended run until the last two seeding games inside the Disney bubble when he scored 23 points in one outing and made a game-winning jumper in the other. Those were the first clues that Johnson was quietly improving, although it was chalked up as a trivial quirk belonging to the general strangeness of bubble basketball.
Maybe it was just a mirage. After all, Johnson doesn’t see anything special in his bubble performances. If you ask him, his progress is a product of his commitment to the Raptors development program. His emergence as a core bench piece and occasional starter is a direct result of the trust that Johnson put into the Raptors coaches.
“During the pandemic and after the season in the bubble, I went back to Toronto and I was with our coaches, and in our facilities, and I was able to learn things from an omniscient view, learning different positions because I had so much time with the coaches,” Johnson said. “That’s what gives me confidence to be more aggressive or do certain things on the court, because if I didn’t have the knowledge in my head to know certain things, I wouldn’t be able to react on the court instead of thinking.”
Nurse and his staff are now returning that trust to Johnson, who has already played double the amount of minutes in 17 games as he did all of last season. Johnson’s first assignment against the Philadelphia 76ers was to use his physicality to absorb the brute strength of Ben Simmons’ drives. The next night he was asked to check Pelicans star Brandon Ingram, then Boston’s Jayson Tatum the game after. And while the Raptors lost all three games, Johnson quietly did his job.
The nervousness and overeagerness from last season was gone, replaced by a careful yet committed approach to team basketball on both sides of the ball. Johnson was steady and reliable for a team that was anything but, and Nurse has stuck with him ever since. The Raptors are allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court, which ranks as the second-lowest mark among rotation players.
Johnson has been recast as a do-it-all defender, which became a pivotal position for the Raptors in their own reinvention as a smallball team. Johnson played 23 minutes against Portland, in which he split his time checking Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr., Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. In the next series against Charlotte, Johnson played the same role toggling between all five positions, where he was just as likely to be wrestling Bismack Biyombo and Myles Bridges on boxouts as he was to be dancing with shifty guards like Terry Rozier or LaMelo Ball above the arc.
OG Anunoby on Stanley Johnson (who forced two airballs to preserve the win):
"Stanley's always been doing this stuff, even last year. He's been a great player. He's always been doing this stuff, he's just showing it in games now." pic.twitter.com/YNHakZq87x
— William Lou (@william_lou) January 17, 2021
Johnson became the hero in the second win over Charlotte. He put Rozier on tilt after disrupting him twice on the same play, and he pinned Biyombo’s shot on the backboard. But most importantly, Nurse went offence-defence with his substitutions in the final minute, specifically relying on Johnson’s defensive acumen. It was a brilliant call, as Johnson forced back-to-back airballs on consecutive possessions to preserve the win.
He carried that momentum into the next game against Dallas. Johnson refuses to accept any credit for it, but in the minutes that OG Anunoby sat he had the primary assignment guarding Luka Doncic, who didn’t score a single point against him in the 13 possessions they matched up. The Raptors suffocated the Mavericks offence at the source and Doncic grew frustrated as the game went on. By the fourth quarter, when Johnson was still hounding Doncic the full length of the floor despite the Raptors holding a commanding lead, the Mavs star threw an elbow then pushed off against Johnson just to create a smidgen of space, which led to Fred VanVleet stepping in and taking a technical foul on his teammate’s behalf.
Defence is enough to keep Johnson on the floor, but offence is still a work in progress. Johnson is strictly the fifth option in just about every lineup. The Bucks flat-out ignored Johnson on Wednesday and essentially used his man as a free safety lingering in the paint. Even though Johnson is shooting 10-of-23 from deep, his career 3-point percentage over six years sits below 30 percent. He will need to find other ways to contribute.
Similar to his defence, Johnson’s versatility is also allowing him to adapt to changing circumstances. Johnson was a centre in the Portland game, so he recorded a pair of screen assists leading to five points. He did the same against the Bucks when he set up Kyle Lowry for a pair of dribble hand-off 3s. More recently, with the Raptors missing Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam to injuries, Johnson assumed more ball-handling responsibilities in terms of running the break and picking out the right passes. He is averaging 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, which is just fractionally behind Siakam as fourth best on the team.
“He’s in such a utility role on offence, sometimes he’s a wing, sometimes he’s a five so he ends up being involved in a lot of screening situations. He’s gotta shift gears a lot, even from possession to possession,” Nurse said. “One possession he’s got (Khris) Middleton on him and the very next possession he’s got (Brook) Lopez on him so he has to shift gears to understand that he becomes our screener.”
Strictly in terms of function, Johnson is doing an impersonation of Draymond Green, albeit on a much smaller scale. Johnson’s interchangeability on defence gives Nurse the ability to switch or to play zone, his physicality supplements for Chris Boucher’s fragility especially when he is flanked by Anunoby, and his ability to handle the toughest assignment relieves Norman Powell which allows him to focus more of his energy on scoring. Offensively, Johnson is just trying to push the pace and to help others find their shots. Johnson’s usage rate is below 10 percent, which is the lowest rate on the team by far, but it isn’t hurting the team’s overall offence in large part because Johnson has quietly set up his teammates.
It’s easy to forget that Johnson was once billed as a LeBron-level prospect in high school, and that he is the highest draft pick on the Raptors roster. Johnson is humble and carries himself with seriousness, and his approach all season has been to win above all else. He ardently refuses credit during interviews and that focus translates to wins. Whatever the team needs, whatever the coaches ask for, Johnson is accepting and providing. That’s the key to being a successful role player.
Johnson is following a familiar path. What the Raptors do better than just about any organization is player development. Late first-rounders become stars, undrafted players win championships, and others around the league take notice. Detroit eventually ditched him in New Orleans, leaving his future uncertain despite the talent and potential. Toronto became an attractive destination specifically for what is happening now: Johnson improved his game and found his identity.
“For me and my development, even though some people would say I didn’t get better, I thought I got better here,” Johnson said. “The instruction I was getting was positive and instructive for me, and I feel like the work I was doing was better. I had a goal in mind to make the rotation and get minutes, and I’m still striving for that goal.”
He makes no bones about how his first few seasons went, or even how quiet he was last year with the Raptors. There was an acceptance that other players were performing better than him, and Johnson bided his time. When the offseason arrived, Johnson exercised his player option to stay, not only because it was the most prudent decision but because the Raptors saw his progress and believed in it.
“I’m a professional athlete, I play for money, so this is a performance-based thing. This is not AAU, this is not YMCA, you play on your performance. If I’m not playing good enough, that’s probably why I wasn’t playing,” Johnson said flatly about last season.
Johnson’s story is that of opportunity meeting preparation. Minutes opened up with free agents moving on, circumstances changed for the Raptors, and Johnson has stepped up. Whether it’s as a backup centre, a quick shift as a defensive stopper, a physical matchup, or to pick apart a zone and to bring some pace into the offence, Johnson had put in the hours behind the scenes and was ready to contribute.
“The biggest part is mentally. Sometimes you battle with yourself. I feel like you have to write your own story, every time you go out, every day you wake up, you have a new opportunity to get better at things or make it happen for yourself,” he said.
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