Signed within a day of Kawhi Leonard’s announcement that he was joining the Los Angeles Clippers, Stanley Johnson’s arrival in Toronto came with a bit of comedy. One small forward was entering the building just as another was exiting, with the obvious talent gap between the two sitting as the punchline.
Taken as a wider snapshot, though, Johnson’s place on the team is way more complex than just one man in and another out.
As the Raptors’ roster has filled out, all the threes and fours appear interchangeable on the wing right now — with the exception of Serge Ibaka, who will spend more time at centre anyway. Competing for minutes with OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and Norman Powell when Toronto goes with Lowry-VanVleet looks doesn’t leave the Arizona product a lot of room for error.
Still, Johnson’s contract is great for a small forward who started 57 games over the last two seasons. The four-year pro signed a two-year deal for $7.5-million and still has his defensive presence to make bank off of. As Sean Woodley pointed out in his signing piece, Johnson ranked 11th in ESPN’s Defensive RPM metric and, while he’s faded from the spotlight since some competitive playoff minutes against LeBron James in his rookie year, can still suffocate on that end of the floor.
So, where will Stanley Johnson settle in the rotation? A lot of that depends on what he can show us on the other end of the floor. Let’s get into the preview.
Role on the Team
Given the makeup of the Raptors’ roster, who will milk up as many minutes as possible with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam as the primary attack players, the expectation for any wing playing off-ball with those three is simple: make shots and defend the opposition’s best guard.
Johnson is a safe bet to do the latter. He’s a strong body at 6’7”, maintains a low centre of gravity, and has good footwork for keeping guys in front of him. TooMuchHoops does a nice job highlighting this from the Raptors-Pistons matchup in November of last year. While it was still a time where Toronto was figuring out its balance between Kawhi Leonard and the team offence, it shows Johnson playing some excellent one-on-one defence and even influencing the key turnover at the end of the game.
When you compare him to all the guys I listed above that he’ll be in competition with for minutes, this is Johnson’s differentiating factor. He can soak up bench minutes against the other team’s best scorer, especially if the opposing coach is staggering them in a creative way.
The ideal world for Johnson is that he takes last year’s OG Anunoby role and becomes OG’s everyday backup, ensuring the Raptors have the smallest drop-off in wing defence from starters to bench among upper-tier Eastern Conference Teams.
That would be the case... if we get to the point where Stanley Johnson is good enough on offence to be the everyday guy coming in at small forward.
Stanley Johnson simply has to be a more consistent and confident shooter if he’s going to break in and be a regular in the Raptors’ rotation.
From what we’ve seen in the preseason already from Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, an energy player off-ball may be more productive for Nick Nurse than a reliable defender. Johnson would need to improve on his poor career shooting line of 37.4 / 29.3 / 76.4 to combat that.
As you can see from the 2018-19 shot chart, there’s potential in Johnson as a reclamation project. He takes shots from the right places. In fact, his pet move of faking a three-point shot and taking two dribbles in for a jumper yields decent rewards.
Still, even Johnson’s field goal percentage of 38.9 is problematic. It got better after his trade to New Orleans, as he had a bump from 37.7 / 27.4 before the All-Star break to 44.3 / 37.9 after — but this goes back to the old NBA question. How much can you really take from a player’s minutes on a bad team, late in the season, especially when their best player has a foot out the door?
The Raptors are going to hope they can teach Johnson to shoot and shoot confidently in his fifth year. He’s still only 23 and can feasibly build on his 3.3 attempts per game. Given the heart-pounding playoff run Toronto just went through, though, you have to think there’s going to be little patience for players who are shy to take the open shots they’re given in the offence.
The most interesting question around the Raptors as the season starts is how their wing rotation settles. It’s clear that returning players Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are going to absorb starters’ minutes, but it seems like the queue behind them gets longer every day. If Terence Davis is going to play his way into the conversation, it gets harder for guys like Stanley Johnson to get enough minutes to make their mark.
That’s going to mean Johnson’s place on this team may be apparent early on. We’ll see how many minutes he gets as an opportunity, and if he’s able to show his defensive ability while knocking down some open shots. There’s something to be said for acumen and experience and Johnson has already played some playoff ball and guarded the best the NBA has to offer in his young career.
He will get less minutes with the Raptors to prove that taught him anything, but the opportunity exists nonetheless.