The NBA is a great life for those who can figure out their place in it.
For the precious few stars it seems pre-ordained: Get drafted high, become an all-star, sign a max deal and battle it out for a title. But the vast majority of players need to find a niche and most often it has little to do with what was expected of them in high school or college, where most players were stars for every moment of their careers – until they reached the NBA.
It can take time and some never see the light.
The Toronto Raptors' Stanley Johnson is a case in point. By the time he finished high school at Mater Dei – the near mythical sports factory outside Los Angles whose alumni list is littered with professional athletes of all stripes – Johnson was a four-time state champion, a McDonald’s All-American, a gold-medal winner with USA Basketball and player of the year in California. The No. 3 ranked recruit signed with Arizona, started 37 of 38 games as a freshman and earned a slew of awards before being taken eighth overall in 2015 by the Detroit Pistons with draft experts raving about his ready-made NBA build.
He was a millionaire before his 20th birthday.
And then, for the first time in his athletic career, the pre-ordained path wasn’t so obvious anymore. Destiny was interrupted, and Johnson had doubts to grapple with.
He only lasted three seasons with the Pistons, who gave up on him when he shot just 37 per cent from the field and 29.5 per cent from three. Simply using his six-foot-six 240-pound frame to overwhelm lesser athletes wasn’t an option. The Pistons traded him to the New Orleans Pelicans and, after 18 games, they didn’t see enough in him to keep him around either.
By the time he signed with Toronto, Johnson was on his third team in four seasons and his career was in the balance.
And his fourth professional season was no better. He battled injuries early on and then couldn’t find space in a jam-packed Raptors rotation. He played just 150 minutes on the season, sprinkled across 25 games.
This is the part of the story where a lot of NBA players are never heard from again. The league turns over talent constantly, and if you haven’t carved out a spot by your fourth season, roster spots are typically given to players who have either proven they belong or haven’t proven they don’t.
But improbably in year six, Johnson, 24, is writing a new chapter as he’s eked out a role for himself on a wobbling Raptors team desperate for what Johnson has plenty of to offer – physicality, the ability to defend up and down the lineup and a willingness to accept a role, no matter how modest.
He’s figuring out NBA life.
“I think the biggest part of it is mentally, sometimes you gotta evaluate yourself,” said Johnson of his uneven progress since turning pro. “I feel like you gotta write your own story. Every time you go out, every time you wake up you have an opportunity to get better at things or make it happen for yourself. I can say I’ve had my good days and my bad days, but I just trust in God and believe in myself. At the end of the day that’s all you have to do and things happen for you.”
Things are beginning to happen — incrementally at least. After seeing the floor for barely a minute in the Raptors' first two games, he’s appeared in eight of the next nine. After averaging just six minutes a game in the 25 games he did play last season, he’s averaged 16 minutes since being held out for most of the first two this season. He hasn’t filled the box score – his season-high is seven points – but the Raptors have scored more points than their opponents in the minutes he’s been on the floor for four straight games now.
His coach is happy about that, and that’s what matters.
“I think he’s solid, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s solid, and that’s what we need. I don’t see, you know, a ton of mistakes. [He] goes for stretches where you don’t really notice him that much and then if he gets left alone naked up there he’s got a little bit of confidence right now to stick that open three. He’s tough on the glass, he fights down there against some bigger bodies because he’s pretty strong himself. I’m happy. Stan’s played a great roll off the bench for us lately. It’s good to see.”
Johnson seems fully committed to this version of NBA success, which is half the battle in a league where accepting a role is a life skill.
Asked if he has to hold himself back from trying to show a wider range of skills — an urge common among players trying to work their way up in a rotation or in the league, Johnson cut off the question:
“I don’t wanna show I can do more,” Johnson said.
It’s pretty clear that he gets it.
“I’m a professional athlete, I play for money,” said Johnson, who is in the second year of a two-year, $7.4 million deal he signed to come to Toronto. “This is a performance-based thing, this is not AAU, this is not YMCA, you play on your performance.
“If I’m not playing good enough, that’s probably why I wasn’t playing. So, for me, I’m not really into anything spectacular. I’m just into going in every day working extremely hard and letting my work do the talking [and] hope my work is what gets the coaches to trust me. My work ethic is what I use to trust myself on the court. At the end of the day, you can only control what you can control to say the least.”
Johnson took renewed control of his career arc late last season. Even after the re-start, Johnson’s playing time was sporadic. But he made the most of his time in the bubble – hitting the game-tying and game-winning shots over the Philadelphia 76ers, after the Raptors bench led a late comeback in the penultimate game of the regular season, and then scored a season-high 23 points in the finale against the Denver Nuggets.
Then, while most of his teammates left the bubble in Orlando to spread out across the U.S. to reconnect with friends and family, Johnson headed straight back to Toronto and got to work.
“I really… I really, really, really, really enjoy playing for this organization top to bottom,” he said. “And … even though some people would say I didn’t get better or whatever they think about me, I thought I got better here. I thought the instruction I was getting was positive and instructive for me and I feel like the work I was doing was better.
“And I had a goal in mind to make the rotation and get minutes and I’m still striving for that goal.”
It’s that openness to take any job available to him that has helped him earn the trust of the coaching staff as they have played Johnson at power-forward and centre at times in small lineups, something Johnson is fine with.
“I’m not a small person, I’m not light in the butt,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have any problems with people down low that seem taller than me or bigger me. I think most of the time I weigh just as much as everybody else other than like Zion [Williamson] or somebody like that. It is what it is.”
It’s the willingness to do what’s asked and contribute what’s needed that has helped earn him steady minutes for the first time as a Raptor, and might just keep him around.
“He's never wavered on the coaching, he's always kind of believed in what we were doing and felt good about that,” said Nurse. “[And] I think he just wants to get out on the court. I mean, like you cannot show anybody your value if you're not getting any minutes. … I think just getting on the floor is what's most important for him.
"And, being a, I think if he can stay in this role, and again, like expand it just a bit, I don't mean doing more … just play solidly for longer, that's going to give him again a chance to enjoy his season for sure a lot more and make some steps forward to kind of [finding] a spot in this league, a consistent spot.”
It’s taken a while, but for perhaps the first time in Johnson’s NBA career the path ahead is clear.