Toronto Raptors mine another hidden gem with Stanley Johnson

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Stanley Johnson is the latest unheralded player to bring value to the Toronto Raptors, adding another success story to one of the league’s best developmental organizations.

By their very nature, under-the-radar, low-cost additions whose star has faded and stock has fallen are unlikely to achieve much. Most such acquisitions fall by the wayside with little fanfare, given the relatively minimal investment placed upon them.

Even by those standards, though, Stanley Johnson’s rise into a key rotation player for the Toronto Raptors and standout wing defender registers as a considerable surprise.

If you hooked Raptor executives up to a lie detector, they would surely admit that they ideally would rather have seen the former No. 8 overall pick opt out of his $3.8 million player option last summer. After all, Johnson was coming off a season in which he saw all of 150 total minutes of floor time (he’s already up to 162 this season), failing to show enough as a defender to offset his offensive deficiencies and earn the trust of Nick Nurse.

Johnson’s Impact

Fast forward a few months and that $3.8 million looks like an absolute bargain for an energetic off-the-bench presence who looks entirely confident guarding the opposition’s best wing scorer and, yes, even knocking down corner threes (he’s shooting a career-best 43.8% from deep, albeit in a very small sample size). Against Dallas, the 24-year-old was a central part of the defensive effort that hounded Mavs star Luka Doncic into just 15 points on 4-11 shooting. Prior to that, Nurse put him on Gordon Hayward vs Charlotte.

Toronto Raptors

The ‘Stanimal’ has made the unlikely transformation into a trusted crunch time defender for the Raptors. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/)

On Saturday, the coach subbed Stanley Johnson back in with 29 seconds remaining as the Raptors clung to a two-point lead. And there he was playing on-ball defense against Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, forcing air balls on both shots to help his team squeak away with a 116-113 win. At a time when the likes of free additions Aron Baynes and DeAndre Bembry and first round pick Malachi Flynn aren’t being trusted with floor time (to say nothing of the waived Alex Len), Johnson is infusing energy into the second unit while also helping Nurse extend his rotation.

Looking Ahead

Suddenly, Johnson’s short- and long-term future looks rather interesting. His immediate value is growing clearer, as Nurse has demonstrated increasing trust by using him in high-leverage, late game situations. Though not an end-of-game lock, the coaching staff clearly likes having the wing-stopping pairing of him and OG Anunoby on the floor late, taking some minutes away from the still-struggling Norman Powell.

Long-term thinking could offer more intriguing possibilities. The Raptors, remember, have money to spend this summer, money that probably won’t be ear-marked for a max free agent. As unlikely as it seemed mere weeks ago, could Johnson earn himself a new contract this off-season? Remember, for his roller coaster of an NBA career to date, the former Arizona Wildcat still counts among the youngest members of the roster.

A Bargain Bin Find

Like so many other NBA executives, Masai Ujiri has faced his share of flops while trying to navigate the free agent bargain bin in pursuit of a low-risk, high-reward flyer. After all, even a respected talent evaluator like Ujiri is bound to wind up with a Jason Thompson, Jared Sullinger or Jeremy Lin. With Johnson, the biggest mistake appeared to be the second-year player option.

Yes, he looked like a worthwhile flyer given his athleticism, youth, defensive potential and status as a product of a Detroit Pistons system that hasn’t demonstrated a great track record at developing players lately. But he wasn’t exactly rife with options after being discarded by the New Orleans Pelicans, who had apparently seen enough during an 18-game tryout as a mid-season trade pickup.

Now, the exercised player option looks like a blessing in disguise for the organization, allowing Johnson to regain his confidence and find his game. Though he’ll need a more sustained stretch of the same kind of play he’s demonstrated of late, the active forward has a chance to join a list of Ujiri’s prized under-the-radar finds. Those include Bismack Biyombo, whose integral role on the 2016 Eastern Conference Finalists landed him a four-year, $72 million contract with the Orlando Magic, and, more recently, Chris Boucher, the other breakthrough success story on this year’s Raptors.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves on Johnson just yet. After all, he isn’t far removed from getting DNP’ed against Phoenix. But with his rise coincided with a three-game win streak and, with that, a gradual climb back to respectability for the Toronto Raptors, it’s hard not to get a bit excited about what he brings to the table.