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Player Preview: Will Stanley Johnson prove himself as an actual player?

Johnson’s career has gone astray, but maybe there’s a chance Toronto can still draw out the talent that made him a top-10 draft pick in the first place.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Player development has become the Raptors’ stock-in-trade over the past few years. Toronto has invested a significant amount of resources in skill-development coaches, the OVO Athletic Centre, and high-tech testing and analytical tools in order to make the most out of the players in the organization.

It was those investment tools that attracted Stanley Johnson to Toronto last season. The highly athletic small-forward decided that Toronto was the best place for him to rehab his NBA value, and give him a shot to sand off the rough edges to his game. That long-term thinking gave Toronto the confidence to sign Johnson to a two-year $7.5 million dollar contract. And it’s that logic that suggests Raptors fans still view Johnson with something more akin to curiosity than derision.

After all, it’s not like Johnson doesn’t have some intriguing tools on which to build. The 24-year old was the eighth overall pick out of Arizona in the 2015 NBA Draft based on those tools. Still, it’s fair to ask whether Johnson can ever be more than the sum of his parts. Over 310 NBA games he’s made just 29 percent of his threes, 43 percent of his twos, and has a negative Value Over Replacement for his career.

With numbers like that, though, it’s fair to ask: what attracted Toronto to Johnson?

First, Johnson has basically the same build as OG Anunoby. Like OG, Johnson is strong enough to check bigger players and has the lateral quickness to stay with smaller guards. Indeed, in his short NBA career the one place he’s consistently provided value is on the defensive end — posting positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus numbers in every stop of his career — apart from an 18-game cameo in New Orleans two years ago.

Johnson is also a solid ball-handler for his size, arguably better at that right now than Anunboy is. With his athleticism, size, generally strong motor and theoretical ability to function as a secondary shot creator, Johnson offers the starter package for a very valuable wing player — a modern “3-and-D, if you will.

Except... for the shooting.

The Raptors, of course, have a deep organizational belief that they can improve shooting. There is certainly a reason for that confidence, as players like Pascal Siakam, Anunoby, Paul Watson, Jonas Valanciunas, and others, have come into Toronto with varying reputations for shooting — and which have been improved over time from there.

Is there a case that Toronto can do the same for Johnson? Perhaps surprisingly there are a few statistical indicators that indicate he’s a decent case for the sort of shot doctoring the Raps like to do.

First of all, Johnson shot 37 percent from three in college on a decent 3.1 attempts a game. More predictively Johnson shot a respectable 74 percent from the line in college, and was up close to 77 percent for his NBA career until hitting a lousy 56 percent as a Raptor in just 16 attempts. Overall, he’s still at 75.5 percent though as a pro, a respectable mark.

Last year was a bit of a lost one though. Due to lingering injuries, and the Raps depth Johnson played only 150 minutes for the big club, by far the lowest of his career. However, he was with Toronto enough, that, because of the aforementioned injuries, Johnson only played three games in the G League — putting up a robust 24 triples in those three games, but still knocking down less than 30 percent.

So, why do I think Johnson may yet have a moment in Toronto?

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C:

So, yes, two plays at the end of a meaningless game, and a strong all-around performance in an even less important game don’t mean much, but looking at how Johnson played in those scenarios shows you what the Raptors see. As a ball-handler, Johnson is too big and athletic for many defenders. He’s got solid vision too, and his ability to defend multiple positions, and finish possessions with a rebound doesn’t grow on trees either. Like a lot of young players, especially ones still trying to prove themselves, Johnson can get sped up — but, as in the Denver game, when he can play under control, he can leverage his physical gifts to become a problem for the opposition.

The question of course is: is there any room at the inn for Johnson? He’s definitely well back in the Raps’ pecking order, but in an extremely compressed 2020-21 season even the team’s buried players may get a chance to play. Johnson has always been aggressive defensively — a must if you want to play for Raptors coach Nick Nurse, and... what if the Raps can make the shooting stick?

By all accounts Toronto worked extensively with Johnson on his shooting last season — and while the top-line results don’t show any improvement, Johnson did come back to shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc in the Bubble on limited attempts. It’s at least possible that some actual improvement did occur behind the bright-lights of the court.

We also have no idea if there will be a G League for Johnson to log more significant minutes to continue to work on his ball-handling and shooting (although some sort of limited Bubble scenario has been discussed). If there is a G League, Johnson would have to approve of being sent down, but the opportunity to get playing time, and showcase a more mature offensive game, along with any sort of up-tick in shooting, could be too appealing to pass on.

In all likelihood, Johnson will go down as a Raptors footnote — another one in a long line of NBA players who were great athletes, but not good enough at basketball to stay at the highest level in the world. Still, there’s a chance that Johnson will be able to put it all together — at least enough to change the direction of his NBA career and to provide the Raptors another checkmark in their player development box.

If that leads the Raps to be the first choice of the next top-10 pick trying to re-establish their game, and the next, sooner or later Toronto will gain a massive asset for minimal cost.

Maybe it’ll even be Johnson.