CHICAGO -- The NBA's shift from the rigid positional structure that defined the league in the '80s and '90s to a more fluid, wide-open game didn't happen overnight. Rule changes that abolished hand-checking and deterred overly physical play had something to do with it. An influx of big men who grew up wanting to be guards played a role, too.
In pro sports, these changes tend to happen gradually. You can look at the way LeBron James was used in Miami, going from a player who spent 74 percent of his minutes at small forward his first year to one who played power forward 82 percent of the time his last two seasons. This year, the Warriors didn't become the best team in basketball until they benched traditional power forward David Lee in favor of the 6'7 Draymond Green.
One thing is for sure: in 2015, no one is arguing about the value of versatile athletes who can defend multiple positions on one end, and shoot, pass and dribble at the other. That's just one reason why Arizona's Stanley Johnson seems to be coming along at the perfect time.
The term most often used to describe Johnson is "man child." He doesn't turn 19 years old until later this month, but he's had an NBA-ready body since he was in high school. At 6'7, 242 pounds, Johnson isn't just strong for a teenager, he's strong for an adult. As he met with the media at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, it was clear he's just now starting to learn what he might one day grow into.
"The first time I started lifting was in college," Johnson said. "I don't know what my body is capable of. I just know that it's big and strong."
We should back up for a second: Johnson played as a freshman for Arizona last season as a nominal shooting guard. With the exception of Joe Johnson, you won't find another 240-pound shooting guard in the NBA. Stanley Johnson was doing it at 18 years old.
While Johnson is accustomed to playing the two, his versatility is what makes him a lottery pick when the NBA Draft takes place on June 25. The team that selects Johnson will be able to move him from shooting guard to power forward depending on the matchups. He's exactly the kind of multipurpose wing that is in demand at the moment.
"I feel I can be most dominant at the two, but I'm comfortable at the three and the four, too," Johnson said at the combine. "The way the league is going, you got 6'2 players playing the two, 6'6 players playing the four. It's about who you can guard and I feel like I can guard all four positions."
It's no coincidence that the Warriors and Bucks finished first and second in defensive efficiency this season with rosters full of quick, long-armed wings. Johnson, with a 6'11 wingspan, feels like he can be the type of player who fits perfectly in similar schemes.
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Of course, having quick feet and long arms doesn't automatically make a player a great defender. It takes a certain mindset to be an elite defender, and Johnson believes he developed it at Arizona. The Wildcats had the No. 3 defense in the country this past season, per KenPom.com, in no small part because Johnson and teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson stifled opponents on the wings.
"We played a hell of a lot of defense," Johnson said about his time at Arizona. "Defense is not only about scheme, but it's about how much you want to play defense. I think me and Rondae are the two best defensive players in the class this year. We want to do it, we know how to do it and we're nasty with it."
Johnson has been bred for this since he started playing the game. When he entered high school at Mater Dei in Southern California, Johnson primarily played center and power forward. By the time he was a junior rising up the rankings to become a top-30 prospect, he was fully entrenched on the wing. As a senior, he was a top-five national recruit playing point guard full time.
The common denominator between four years of high school playing all over the court? Mater Dei won the state championship every year.
Johnson came to Arizona with sky-high expectations as he replaced Aaron Gordon in the starting lineup. Whether he met them is a matter of perspective. There were times when Johnson looked unstoppable, like when he went off for 18 points and nine rebounds against Utah, or the time he dominated Caris LeVert and Michigan by finishing with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Among draft-eligible freshmen, only Jahlil Okafor and D'Angelo Russell averaged more than Johnson's 13.8 points per game.
Still, it's difficult to forget the disappointing way in which Johnson's season ended. He was in foul trouble early in Arizona's Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin and finished with only six points on 2-of-4 shooting while Badgers junior wing Sam Dekker thrived. In his last three NCAA Tournament games, Johnson averaged just 7.3 points on 27 percent shooting from the field. In the same span, he had six turnovers and just two assists.
Johnson knows he's far from a finished product. He spent his freshman year working on a floater and pull-up jumper to better his mid-range game. It was a work in progress, as he made only 40 percent of shots inside the paint in half-court situations, according to Draft Express.
Johnson showed better improvement in other areas, though. He hit 37 percent of the 3.1 three-pointers he attempted per game and was excellent on pull-up jumpers off the dribble. The fact that he can play either role in the pick-and-roll and be a threat offensively has to excite teams as well.
For now, Johnson is a freight train in transition, a capable catch-and-shoot player with a quick release and potential monster defensively. Best of all, he plays hard for every minute he's on the floor and has a motor that won't quit. When you consider his age and the physical tools he's working with, Johnson's potential leaves little debate that he's a top-10 pick.
When one reporter asked why a team should draft him, Johnson calmly responded, "Because I'm the best player in the draft."
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