Toronto Raptors: Stanley Johnson’s Kawhi-Esque defense and offensive revolution

Toronto Raptors - Stanley Johnson (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Stanley Johnson (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors bench depth has been poor for the better part of the season (besides Boucher), but one player who has been impressive is Stanley Johnson.

“I just think that I’m the best player in the draft,” Stanley Johnson said shortly after being selected 8th by the Detroit Pistons in the 2015 NBA Draft. Fast forward six years, Johnson would be outshined by players like Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Devin Booker. However, if Johnson’s recent play for the Toronto Raptors is reflective of his future, there is still a place for Johnson to be considered top ten in his draft.

Not much was made of Johnson’s signing in 2019 right after Kawhi Leonard bolted to LA (a player he was compared to coming out of the draft). Johnson, a great defender, was unable to ever polish his offensive game to the NBA level and that’d lead to the eventual break-up between him and the Pistons.

They’d trade him to the Pelicans mid-season of the 2018-2019 season where he’d averaged 7 points shooting 38.9 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three. The Pelicans declined to extend his qualifying offer and that would make him an unrestricted free agent.

Comparing Stanley Johnson’s 2017-2018 offense to his revolutionary offense this season

Though he was unable to crack minutes in a strong Raptors team last season, he has been able to find himself a role this season on a team that desperately needs size and versatility. His offensive numbers are not too far off from what they’ve been for his career, but he has been a much better decision-maker on that end.

Former Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy loves defense, that’s why Johnson saw so much playing time in the 2017-2018 season. Johnson held more responsibility being used on-ball and was as poor off-ball. It led to a lot of bad mid-range shots, possessions where Johnson would be stationary for the entirety of the shot clock, contested three-point shots with16 plus seconds left on the shot clock, and just very bad passes/turnovers.

Stanley Johnson would average 8.7 points shooting 37.5 percent from the field, with 32 percent of his shots coming from mid-range. The team was also 2.5 points worse on offense per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

This season, though far from perfect, Johnson has been able to find a role that is much more suited to him on offense; less on-ball activity and a lot more movement off-ball. Johnson isn’t taking contested threes or long-mid range shots anymore. He’s also a much better decision-maker and passer. Below is a perfect example of a shot he would’ve taken in Detroit.

Instead, he makes the extra pass. Something simple yet wasn’t there just a few seasons ago. His cutting has also been very impressive this season. Cutting on numerous occasions when he catches the player guarding him sleeping or when the ball-handler needs help and cannot reach him from where he is.

His percentages are still not great — shooting 62 percent around the rim and 36 percent from three in non-garbage time minutes — but they are still way better than what they were in his previous four seasons. Higher percentages come with the higher percentage looks he’s getting.

Better shot selection, a lot of off-ball movement and better decision making are all factors that make Johnson a positive on offense for only the second time in his career. If he can keep this up and slowly bring up his efficiency, Johnson flirting with 20-25 minutes a night isn’t such a preposterous thing anymore.

Stanley Johnson’s Kawhi-Esque defense

There’s a reason that Johnson was drafted at eight and drew comparisons to Kawhi Leonard coming out of the draft. Watch the sequence below where he locks down Kawhi in the fourth quarter on multiple occasions.

It’s like watching Kawhi guarding Kawhi. The Pistons would end up beating the eventual champions solely because of the five turnovers Johnson forced on Kawhi.

Johnson has all the tools it takes to be a lockdown defender in this day and age. He may not be on the level Kawhi is but they do share similarities. Johnson is strong, quick, athletic, and has an innate feel to the game that allows him to interrupt passing lanes and steal/deflect passes the way he does below.

Johnson’s impact on the defensive end has been critical to the Toronto Raptors. When Johnson is on the court, the team allows 10.1 fewer points per 100 possessions, opposing teams effective field goal rate is 5 percent worse, and offensive rebounds occur 5.4 percent less. He has the third-best plus-minus differential on the team with a plus-minus of +11.4, which is the highest since his +1.4 in the 2016-2017 season, per Cleaning the Glass (this is excluding last season where he barely played).

Johnson has always had all the tools to succeed on both ends of the floor. He’s excelled on defense in his 5 seasons in the NBA, and now that his offense is steadily improving, he can be a real important Three-and-D player for the Raptors moving forward.

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Remember, he’s only turning 25 this year. He probably won’t wind up becoming the best player of his draft as he said but he’s still young and on the best development team in the league, the Toronto Raptors. The best is yet to come.