AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson doesn't look like he's 19 years old. He stands 6-foot-7, weighs 245 pounds and usually plays with a toughness that many veterans don't have. Teammate Reggie Jackson affectionately calls him a “man-child.”
In the first playoff game of his career on Sunday afternoon, Johnson scored nine points, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, and grabbed eight rebounds in 16 minutes in a Game 1 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Aside from the solid shooting, what impressed many was the fact that he didn't back down from the physicality that the playoffs demand. He wasn't scared of guarding LeBron James and seemed to embrace the stage.
"He's phenomenal," Jackson said after the game. "He's honestly phenomenal. Any offensive contributions we get from him when he plays well on that end, we love it. But he's a competitor. I think everybody knows he asked for this matchup even before he had played a summer league game. He's welcoming it. Each time he gets a chance to go out there and compete against LeBron or anybody else, he's taking on the challenge.
"Stanley Johnson is a complete dog. He doesn't fear no man. We all bleed, so there ain't no reason to worry anybody, and that's how he feels. He's going to come at you and attack you. It's a mindset that we all need to have, and it's one that we embrace with him on this team. He did a great job of being under control today, welcoming the challenge."
While the rest of the basketball world starts to learn more about Jackson's game, his teammates and coaches aren't surprised that the Arizona product is already having an impact in his first playoff series. For his part, Johnson is just taking the spotlight in stride as he navigates his way on the larger platform. He admits there was a moment early in Game 1 when he got tangled up James that brought everything into focus for him.
"I think the only moment where I was kind of mad and lost my cool was -- I understand he's a physical guy, but if wants to try to grab me and throw me to the floor and you call a foul on me, I just don't understand that," Johnson said after Monday's practice. "Obviously, he got the call and it's whatever, but for me that was like, 'Wow.' I've never had a person grab my jersey and try to throw me to the floor and then I come up on the wrong end of things like that. So that kind of woke me up a little bit, and then from that point on it was like, 'It's on.' You want to foul [me]? We both can go to the floor next time. That's how I took that. So from now on ..."
Did Johnson get an explanation for the call?
"No, no," Johnson said. "He's LeBron. That's the explanation. That's what it is. I already knew what time it was, but I didn't think it was going to be a blatant foul like that -- [it's] physical basketball. So on the other end, when I get an opportunity to throw him on the ground, it is what it is. He would do the same to me."
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy admitted after Sunday's loss that he thought about putting Johnson back into the game late for Tobias Harris, but he decided against it after discussing the possibility with his assistants. Like many around the organization, Van Gundy isn't surprised that Johnson lived up to the playoff moment in Game 1.
"Stanley's toughness and competitiveness and the fact that he'll never back down, that's not been a concern all year," Van Gundy said. "What he's got to do is play smarter, make better decisions and continue to work on his skills. I never have a doubt about his competitiveness. Now, I don't know he's going 3-for-3 again [on Wednesday], but I know he'll go out and battle defensively and get on the boards. He's a hell of a rebounder for a perimeter guy; [he had] eight rebounds [on Sunday]. So that kind of stuff we know he'll do, and he needs to continue to do that as he works to improve the rest of his game."
Van Gundy loves the fact that his young small forward wants the "challenge" of guarding an opponent's best players -- and there are few better ways to learn than dealing with James in a playoff series. The mental toughness he showed on Sunday will be tested again throughout the series, but those close to him believe he is up for the challenge, even at such a young age.
"To me, that kind of stuff, I don't even know if it's going to change a whole lot," Van Gundy said. "If you're not a competitor, a great competitor at 19, my guess is at 22 you're not going to be a great competitor, either. That to me is just sort of part of the personality. Now you'll learn to play situations better, you maybe won't make the mistakes about being nervous, you'll have seen things more. All of those things will change, but the competitiveness to go out and play the best player in the world and not be afraid and all of that. If he didn't have that now, I don't think he'd have it in three years, quite honestly."
Like many rookies, Johnson had an up-and-down campaign in his first season, averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 23.1 minutes a game. He dealt with a shoulder injury after the All-Star break and acknowledged that he had to focus even more after two straight DNP-CDs near the end of the regular season. But now he has a chance to develop into the force those close to him knew he could be.
"I think everybody knew Stanley had a chance to be [special]," Jackson said. "He was a mental monster since he's been 17. Like I said, he fears no man; he's very confident in his abilities and what he does. He's still figuring out what he does well, things that he has to work on. [We're in] constant conversation with him about it and he admits up to it, but he just wants to be better.
"He always wants to be better, he wants to be the greatest to ever do this. He wants to be the best him. Like I said, he fears no man, so [Sunday's] performance really wasn't necessarily surprising after being around him so long."