View Original Notice ? Stanley Johnson earns Lakers roster spot through end of season
PHILADELPHIA — No matter what happens on a given night, the one thing Stanley Johnson knows he cannot do is stand still.
The 25-year-old explained his mentality this season after a Jan. 17 victory over the Utah Jazz, a game in which he scored five consecutive field goals in the fourth quarter and had played sturdy defense in the post and wing. For Johnson – a former No. 8 overall pick in 2017 who has had to claw to stay in the league this season – his recent renaissance has been based in part on the laws of motion. As long as he stays in motion, he’ll find ways to do good things.
“I can’t be a standstill statue,” he said. “I got to get deflections. I got to play. I got to put myself in the game. I got to make myself useful. Because that’s where I excel, is on the defensive end.”
Johnson’s active streak now has earned him a roster spot for the remainder of the season, along with a team option for the 2022-23 season. And the Lakers (24-24) in deciding to keep Johnson, a former Mater Dei High star who has brought relatively low counting stats (6.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg) but still made a high impact, signals where the team is headed now that its Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook are all healthy at the same time.
Johnson’s importance was underscored Tuesday, two days before his third 10-day contract ended, by his presence in the starting lineup, giving the Lakers a hard-working defender who helps unlock their smaller lineups.
Signing Johnson back on Christmas Day didn’t necessarily send the Lakers down the path of playing James and Carmelo Anthony at center, but it certainly helped make those groups seem more schematically sound. With Johnson in as a 6-foot-6 stretch forward, James has been more free to defend in the post and attack the basket more often as a screener rather than a primary ball-handler.
“Our shift of our system of playing with an open paint, which is different than we’ve done the last couple of years,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “And his willingness to not be the initiator with everything, but trusting his teammates, becoming a roller, getting other guys open because they don’t leave him or he’s getting more pocket passes than he ever has in his career.”
Their rotation with Davis back in the fold included some notable absences: Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza and Wayne Ellington did not play. Those veterans signed last summer have been gradually phased out in favor of younger players with faster feet: Johnson, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves among them. As the Lakers resort to more switching on defense and aim to attack more in transition, speed and an overall high activity level have become premium traits. They can’t have a defense of standstill statues.
That is not to say some of the Lakers veterans won’t contribute again, or that they can’t contribute. But the long-term commitment to Johnson reflects how much they have come to lean on those lineups recently. And while the Lakers struggled on defense while playing small, Davis’ return against the Brooklyn Nets helped other pieces click into their proper places, James said.
“He just makes our team so much more complete,” he added. “Our length defensively, our ability to really get up in people’s faces because we know we got him at the rim, or our ability to switch a lot of things because he can literally guard one through five.”
The Lakers’ spacing has also been a part of the calculus: Without Davis, James has climbed the NBA’s scoring chart to rank second behind Kevin Durant, and the Lakers have boasted one of the most potent offenses in the league.
Davis said he enjoyed watching James while he was sidelined and has been excited to follow in his footsteps.
“The things we were doing, the adjustments we made playing five-out offense, and guys running to the screens, LeBron and Melo, it kind of confused people,” Davis said. “And so I tried to do the same thing. It’s the first game back, not trying to get too many isos or force up shots. Try to screen, roll and put guys in position where the entire team can be successful.”
Staying in motion is a powerful concept. And apparently, for the Lakers, it can be contagious.