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Player Review: The Lost Season of Stanley Johnson

Stanley Johnson came to Toronto with reputation as a strong perimeter defender. He barely played. What happened?

Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: The Lost Season of Stanley Johnson Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Following the departures of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard last offseason, the Raptors didn’t have a ton of money available to replace them. They’d need to rely on Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster and Dan Tolzman to find a few diamonds in the rough (read: affordable guys) to round out the roster.

Just a day after Leonard’s departure, the Raptors announced they’d signed Stanley Johnson to a very reasonable two-year contract, reportedly worth about $7.5 million. A former eighth-overall pick, Johnson’s rep as a defense-first small forward whose offensive game needed work seemed to fit well with a Toronto team that hung its hat on its defense, and had a top development program. In other words, another potential Ujiri steal.

Sadly, it didn’t work out for our guy Stanley.

The Numbers

Johnson appeared in 25 games for the Raptors, averaging 2.4 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 6 minutes per game, on 37/29/56 shooting splits (.454 true shooting percentage). While those aren’t the worst shooting numbers of his career, everything else was a career low. They aren’t, in all honesty, worth digging into any further; we can sum it up by saying Johnson didn’t play much, and when he did, he wasn’t particularly good.

Getting off on the Wrong Foot

The signs of Johnson’s unfortunate season to come bubbled up to the surface early. From the very first pre-season game, Johnson struggled to find his way in Toronto’s system. In the team’s four exhibition games, he played almost 13 minutes per game — but hit only one of his 13 shots, and committed nine total fouls.

His offensive struggles you might be able to overlook — he didn’t come here to score, after all — but Nick Nurse saw something he didn’t like on the other end. Following that third preseason game, Nurse called out both Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, also acquired in the offseason, for their defensive lapses.

Those guys have not understood A) how hard we play, B) our schemes, that defense is a priority for them, etc. We’ve got some work to do with that crew. I tell them there’s a couple spots, come Tuesday night there’s a couple spots there open if somebody wants them. And I keep telling [them] show me you’re going to play defense, show me you’re going to play hard, show me you understand our coverages.

Hollis-Jefferson got the message; he became a regular rotation player and a fan-favourite thanks to his defensive intensity. Johnson couldn’t get out of the doghouse.

A groin injury didn’t help either. After amassing nothing more than garbage time in the Raptors’ first 12 games, Johnson spent the next 17 on the injured list. He only broke double-digit minutes once before the Raptors had locked up their seeding position with three games to go in the regular season.

Off to the ‘Sauga

If Stanley showed anything this season, it was that he knew how to keep his head down and keep working; we never heard him complain about his role or his minutes, and he willingly went off to Mississauga to get some reps in with the Raptors 905. He appeared in three 905 games, getting up 62(!) total shots and averaging 22.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

The G-League proved that Johnson could play — but the question still remains whether or not he can play with the pace and precision that Nick Nurse demands.

Dressed for Success, or Nah

My favourite Stanley moment of the season, pre-Bubble at least, might have come off the court, in December. Johnson made his way out to support his teammate, Serge Ibaka, at the premiere of “Anything is Possible,” Ibaka’s film about bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy home to the Republic of Congo.

Johnson somehow thought sweats were appropriate film premiere attire, and arrived just a tad embarrassed to see everyone around him dressed up — and he subsequently received an appropriate dressing-down from the always impeccably-attired Ibaka, a moment caught on tape for Open Gym:

It’s a shame that the pandemic hit before Johnson could film an appearance on Avec Classe, and get some proper style tips from Serge!

We also can’t let Johnson’s player review go by without calling attention to his now-legendary reflective glasses, immortalized by The Athletic’s Eric Koreen as a regular in Eric’s Twitter repertoire:

We’ll Always Have Philly (via Orlando)

If there was one thing you could be sure of in the entertaining-as-hell experience that was the 2019-20 Raptors season, it’s that everyone would get their moment. And while it came about 10 months after the season started, Johnson finally got his, in the second last game of the regular season, against the Philadelphia 76ers.

With neither the Raptors nor the 76ers having anything left to play for, both teams gave their starters extended rest, and allowed their benches to close out a tightly-contested game. After a Raul Neto and-1 gave the Sixers a two-point lead, Johnson scored a running layup to tie the game, and then recovered a blocked Dewan Hernandez shot and softly floated in the game-winner with less than five seconds remaining.

It was a great moment for a guy who didn’t have many in this long season, and it was pretty awesome to see the support he got from his teammates on the bench.

Perhaps buoyed by that performance, Johnson scored a season-best 23 (on 9-of-16 shooting) and dished out six assists in the Raptors’ final regular season game, a 117-109 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Predicting Stanley Johnson’s Future

Feel-good game-winners aside, Johnson’s first season with the Raptors has to be considered a failure; he didn’t live up to his reputation as a defensive specialist, and he didn’t take advantage of the Raptors’ development program to hone his offensive game. At this point in his career, he hasn’t lived up to his draft position, either.

Johnson is likely going be back with the team next season; the second year of his contract is a player option, and unless he really wants to get out and play somewhere else, I can’t imagine him opting out.

So the question then is, what role does Johnson play next season? Was that mini-flurry at the end of the Bubble something to build off of? It seems unlikely that Hollis-Jefferson will be back, so the Raptors do have a hole in the forward rotation that Johnson could conceivably fill.

If Johnson takes what he now knows about succeeding in the Raptors’ system, watches a ton of film, and works at learning the schemes and improving his positioning this offseason, he might have a chance. Nick Nurse seems like an open-minded guy, so I don’t think he’s closed the book on Johnson, but I also think it’s safe to say Johnson has a lot of work to do. I’m rooting for him, but I wouldn’t bet money on his role next year being any different.