The Detroit Pistons have undergone a significant transformation under Stan Van Gundy, from starting three big men with no range to finding their identity as a smaller team that plays with four perimeter players surrounding Andre Drummond. The trade for Tobias Harris cemented that identity and puts them in a fantastic position going forward, with a core of young veterans that can grow together in key positions.
Yet for Detroit to achieve its full potential, its youngest prospect (rookie Stanley Johnson) has to emerge as the versatile two-way force his tools suggest he could be.
Johnson's elite 3-and-D potential
Johnson was the second wing selected in the 2015 draft, behind Mario Hezonja and ahead of Justise Winslow. His profile fit that of a 3-and-D player, a perimeter stopper who can also sink outside shots. The fact that he was picked eighth overall illustrates how valuable athletic defenders who can shoot have become in the pace-and-space era.
Luckily for the Pistons, Johnson could potentially be among the best in the league in that role in a few years.
In his time in Arizona, Johnson made his mark on the defensive end. At 6'7 and 245 pounds, he has ideal size to defend both spots in the perimeter. He's just a rookie but he shows tantalizing flashes of potential on that end.
With some work on the fundamentals and some added strength, Johnson could become one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He may grow into the type of defender that might not get a lot of steals or blocks, but makes a profound impact on the game, like the similarly built Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
After shooting 37 percent from outside in college, Johnson is connecting on just 32 percent of his three-point shots in the NBA. Yet there's still plenty of potential there as well. He's shooting 36 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers and 37 percent from the corners.
He's far from hopeless as a spot-up threat and should only get better with more attempts and a summer to hone his form. If he can at least become a corner specialist, he would represent an upgrade over the rotation players ahead of him now.
The Pistons need what Johnson has to offer
The addition of Harris has really provided a boon to the Pistons' offense. The new starting unit scores over 108 points per 100 possessions, a fantastic number that would have ranked among the best in the league on that end. As good as that lineup has been on offense, however, it clearly lacks two distinct things to be great: three-point shooting and perimeter defense.
The starting unit is allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which can be improved. Opponents are killing them from inside the arc, and that's in no small part because of the Harris-Marcus Morris duo, which can't prevent penetration. If the Pistons see Harris as a power forward -- and that's the position in which he can make the most damage -- then adding a perimeter stopper at small forward is a must. Morris tries, but he's simply not equipped to handle quicker scorers.
On offense, the Pistons are scoring in the paint a lot, but have little in the way of three-point shooting. They average just over 21 attempts per 48 minutes and connect on only 30 percent of those looks. That's with Harris shooting well above his career averages. There's simply no deadly outside threat on that five-man unit -- Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are shooting 31 and 30 percent, respectively, and Reggie Jackson handles the ball most of the time.
Johnson is not the solution right now, but could become a good enough shooter to offer the spacing Detroit lacks.
Johnson is the glue guy the Pistons need
Johnson is still a work in progress as a 3-and-D player. With the way he's played at such a young age, however, it's not crazy to suggest he has the potential to solve Detroit's problems. He's already shooting marginally better than two starters and defense is his calling card. With just normal improvement over the summer and a season under his belt, he could become the perfect complement for the other four core players as soon as next year.
The Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll should be even deadlier with better spacing and there will be more touches for Caldwell-Pope and Harris with a fifth starter that makes his mark on offense off the ball. On defense, Detroit could have a fearsome perimeter trio that can switch three positions depending on matchups, which could limit penetration and ease Drummond's responsibilities as a rim protector.
The funky Harris/Morris duo has gotten more playing time than originally thought thanks to injuries to Anthony Tolliver and Johnson, and it has been immensely fun to watch at times. Its viability going forward, however, is suspect. By eventually starting Johnson, the Pistons would become a more traditional team, but one that would have a perfect balance of skill sets.
If the rookie does become the next 3-and-D star, Detroit could have the makings of a contender.