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The Stanley Johnson Conundrum: Where do we go from here?

Spearheaded by President Masai Ujiri the Raptors have pulled off an impressive seven-year stretch where they have climbed from afterthought to a premier destination. As the franchise has thrived, not only has their on-court product been a success but their management, coaching, and even marketing team have all contributed to a strong reputation. Above it all, the Raptors’ development system may deserve the biggest praise.

Again and again the Raptors and their G-League affiliate, Raptors 905, have proven that they can transform under-valued prospects into quality NBA players. The ascension of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are most frequently mentioned, but the emphasis on player development is felt throughout the roster. Even players like Norman Powell and OG Anunoby have continued to add to their offensive repertoire while remaining on the big club.

Whether it’s in Toronto or Mississauga, the Raptors organization has had an unheralded track record regarding the improvement of late-first round, second round and even undrafted players. Due to the team’s success they’ve only had one lottery pick in the past eight drafts (Jakob Poeltl). If a team can develop undrafted players into quality NBA starters, they surely could do the same with lottery picks, right?

That belief is why the Raptors’ offseason signing of forward Stanley Johnson made so much sense. The former third overall recruit coming out of high school in 2014, and 8th overall pick in the NBA draft in 2015, Johnson was a blue chip prospect coming into his first professional experience.

Playing for the Detroit Pistons, Johnson struggled early and often out of the gate. Johnson never shot over 39% from the floor, 31% from three, or had a double-digit PER in any of his three and a half seasons in Detroit. We’re talking about a top 10 pick who is statistically five and half times more likely to score zero points than 20-plus. Johnson was known as a defense-first prospect, and one who’s shooting would eventually develop turning him into a prototypical 3-and-D wing.

Despite continuous attempts from the Pistons to give Johnson an opportunity it was rarely met with success. After three and a half disappointing seasons in Detroit Johnson was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans for Thon Maker in a three-team trade. After a stretch of 18 games in New Orleans where he only averaged 13.7 minutes a game, Johnson became a free agent for the first time in his career.

After a disastrous early-July night where both Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green bolted for the west coast, the Raptors were in a tough spot. Gone were their two most effective wings and also gone were most of the free agents capable of replacing some of the lost production. Due to the fact that Leonard took five days to make his decision and that Green was waiting for Leonard to decide, the Raptors were behind the 8-ball.

It seemed like no team wanted to commit to the Stanley Johnson reclamation project. Given his poor shooting and lack of overall offensive skill, teams weren’t racing to sign him to a guaranteed deal. At the same time, the Raptors desperately needed wing help and had a track record of improving the offensive game of previously unproven commodities. The deal made sense and five days after Leonard left, Johnson signed a 2-yr, $7.42M deal with the Raptors, with the second year being a player option.

Fast forward to the present and Stanley Johnson has scored a combined 19 points in his 11 appearances this season. After being called out in the preseason by coach Nick Nurse for lack of effort, he saw himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot. Following a month-long injury absence he once again struggled to see the floor.

On Monday, the Raptors had a proposal for Johnson. Subject to Johnson’s approval, they desired to send him down to the Raptors 905 for a game, a place where so many developing Raptors had gone to improve their craft. Johnson accepted, knowing that the opportunity for more shots would be a welcoming sight. Come game time he most certainly did get more shots but getting them to fall was a different story. Johnson took 24 field goal attempts on the night, to match his 24 points. After shooting a putrid 2-12 in the first half he shot an improved 6-12 in the second. His 2-10 shooting from deep showed a continued struggle for Johnson over the course of his career. He simply struggles to shoot from the perimeter, open or not.

The next night due to the plethora of injuries the big club had accumulated Johnson was a rotation player for the Raptors. Continuing the trend of inefficient shooting, he shot 1-7 from the field (including 1-4 from three) in his 17 minutes on the floor. In the span of two days where he was given two chances by the Raptors organization, Johnson simply could not garner any sort of offensive efficiency.

The Stanley Johnson era is not yet over for the Raptors. Unless traded he will almost surely accept his second year player option and remain with the club through next season. His effort levels haven’t translated to a defensive presence that warrants minutes and his offensive ability is continuously underwhelming. The 905 experiment was a great idea in theory and hopefully something they persist with as long as Johnson shows improvement. The support of the Raptors organization is one of the best things going for Johnson and it’s something he’s unlikely to find elsewhere.

It may be hard to grasp as fans but it must be unbelievably difficult to be taken as a top 10 pick, dubbed an important piece of a franchise’s future, and then fall well short of expectations. The mental health of professional athletes has long been talked about over the past few years, yet is still heavily understated when analyzing hoops. Players like Johnson and Anthony Bennett are heavily scrutinized due to their draft position, however, many 19 year olds aren’t ready for the spotlight at such a young age. LeBron James and Luka Doncic remain exceptions more than the rule. 

Perhaps one of the reasons that the Raptors have had so much success developing later draft picks is the lack of pressure on the athletes. No one expected VanVleet to become anything close to an NBA rotation player so he was able to focus on proving them wrong. Johnson, on the other hand, has had to spend his whole career proving his team’s management right. The difficulty of knowing that your whole career is centred around making shots, and that in order to be an effective player they must drop, puts an unbelievable weight on every flick of the wrist.

At the end of the day Stanley Johnson is only 23 years old. He doesn’t have an extensive injury history and is chock-full of athletic and defensive ability. Perhaps the Raptors being patient and keeping him in the G-League is his best bet. Getting more reps for the 905 could certainly be a positive. With that being said, due to the Raptors extreme depth issue with so many injuries, it would be tough to have Johnson sent down for an extended period of time right now. It may be a ton of back and forth but should the consistent playing time improve his confidence, it will be beneficial for Johnson.

After recently being signed in Brooklyn Justin Anderson is a good example of what Johnson could achieve with extended run for the Raptors 905. Anderson showed inconsistent shooting ability in his four previous seasons in the NBA, and found himself without a big league job this year. Playing for the 905, Anderson was a focal point in the offence, taking 14.8 shots a game, and shooting 34.3% from deep, higher than any season of his in the NBA. It seemed like his new-found freedom and lack of pressure helped Anderson’s offensive game and led him to another chance in the association. Johnson can look at this and see a perfect case of what an extended G-League stay could like like. More shots and more freedom could be just what the doctor ordered for him.

There has even been talk of Johnson’s name being thrown in trade discussions as a salary filler. While basketball is surely a business, giving up on a player just months into his tenure in Toronto may be a bit shortsighted, unless a tremendous deal comes to the table. I believe Johnson truly needs a place to be in the right headspace and focus on his game without any of the pressure that being an NBA player brings. He is a talented player and he can create a long career in this league. It just may take time.

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