After his first season with the team was riddled with DNPs, it appears that sixth-year forward Stanley Johnson is beginning to carve a role with the Toronto Raptors, earning meaningful minutes in each of the team's last three games.
In Toronto's three-point win over the Charlotte Hornets Saturday night, Nick Nurse trusted Johnson to be on the floor for the final possession when the team needed one stop in order to win. And on that play, Johnson did what he does best.
As former NBA assistant coach Steve Jones Jr. points out, Johnson reads the play extremely well, allowing action to develop before using his athleticism to get out and contest the potential game-tying 3-pointer from Terry Rozier, who had already knocked down six 3s in the game.
OG Anunoby, who was also on the floor for the game-saving stop, was extremely complimentary of Johnson's play and defensive prowess, telling reporters "Stanley came (in) and he played great. Just having him on the floor and - me, him and (Pascal Siakam) - we can all switch, guard anybody and just rotate around - fly around - it helps a lot having him. It's great, he played great tonight."
Anunoby continued, saying that although Johnson's recent play might seem like a pleasant surprise to outsiders, it's something he's been showing behind the scenes for a while: "I think Stanley's always been doing this stuff.
"Even last year, Stanley's been a great player, he's always been doing this stuff, he's just showing it in games now."
That Johnson is stepping up to show he can be trusted in such game situations is extremely beneficial for Nurse, who continues to search for situational answers for his team's rotation. Compare the above play to the final possession of Thursday's game against the Hornets, in which poor ball screen coverage leads to an open look for a 36.2% 3-point shooter in P.J. Washington.
Note that in the above play, it is Chris Boucher on the floor, not Johnson.
After the game, Nurse acknowledged that the team's most recent two games coming down to the wire has allowed him to adjust, telling Sportsnet's Steven Loung that "we're getting a lot of practice at our end of game strategies. There's really no way to recreate those in practice."
These adjustments included the offence-defence substitutions of Boucher and Johnson, which he accredited for "giving us a little better defensive look and a chance to switch and guard some of their quickness."
Johnson, who was the No. 8 overall pick in 2015, has yet to truly find his niche in the league after entering as a highly-touted prospect. The 24-year-old returned to Toronto on a player option for the 2020-21 season and recently told reporters the rationale behind his decision, sharing that "I had a goal in mind, to make the rotation and get minutes, and I'm still striving for that goal.
"To come back you also wanna be received and I feel like they also wanted me to come back. Top to bottom I've had nothing but a great experience here."
After playing a total of 150 minutes in his first season as a Raptor, Johnson has appeared in 162 minutes through 11 games this season, including 79 minutes over the team's last four games. There are plenty of ways in which he can continue to develop and improve - namely on the offensive end - but Johnson's defensive ability has allowed him to make an impact on a team that is still working to find its identity in more ways than one.
His early-season impact should bode well for the future.
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