Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Stanley Johnson.
For all of the acquisitions and signings the Lakers made during the offseason, few were as impactful as Stanley Johnson… who wasn’t signed to a guaranteed contract until 2022. A string of 10-day deals that began on Christmas Day extended nearly a month before he signed a two-year deal with a team option for next season.
Johnson’s journey with the Lakers, though, began in mid-November when he joined the South Bay Lakers. While he eventually signed a contract with the Bulls, Johnson entered health and safety protocols, saw his 10-day expire and eventually he landed back home in Southern California, where things seemed to work out pretty well for both parties.
Playing for the Lakers fulfilled a childhood dream for Johnson, and the franchise got some sorely needed athleticism, energy and length. His impact was felt from the moment he stepped on the court and he never left the rotation after his debut.
But was his impact felt because the Lakers were so devoid of players of his archetype, or did Johnson turn a corner of sorts to become a legitimate role player with a spot on the team moving forward? Let’s review.
How did he play?
There’s being thrown into the fire, and then there’s being signed on a 10-day deal and tasked with guarding James Harden on national TV on Christmas Day all on the same day. For Johnson, it was trial by combat, but the way he hit the ground running and limited Harden all day long — a recurring trend this season — set the tone for his Lakers tenure.
Early on this season, the Lakers’ lack of perimeter length was very noticeable. It’s why they targeted Johnson as a hardship waiver signing in the first place. That he was able to step in and immediately make an impact further shows how badly the Lakers needed a player like him, but also is a testament to Johnson’s level of work and preparation.
But when talking about Johnson’s season with the Lakers, the way the team helped reinvent him is important to note. Long seen as a 3&D wing prospect, head coach Frank Vogel and the coaching staff turned him into a small ball center allowing him to finally have extended success in the NBA.
In the minutes with LeBron James and Johnson as the frontcourt, the Lakers had a net rating of -1.6 which, by this team’s astronomically low standards, was decent. Playing him at center eliminated the need for him to be an outside shooter, and made his contributions from deep feel like an added bonus instead of a requirement. It also allowed him to fully utilize his physique and strength around the basket, and helped him take advantage of bigger players without his level of speed, most memorably in a win over Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz.
Eventually, as teams caught on and began gameplanning for it, Stanley and the Lakers lost some of their advantages of playing him at center. His net rating trended downward as the season went along, and after having a net rating of +2.9 in 17 December and January games, Johnson had a net rating of -3.3 over the final 31 games.
But if the Lakers — and whoever their next coach is — can figure out how to properly use Johnson in a more limited role and continue to unlock him, the Lakers could have an interesting piece moving forward.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Speaking of moving forward, the Lakers control whether Johnson returns next year, with the team holding a team option for the 2022-23 campaign. If they do accept it, Johnson will be on the books for $2.3 million next season.
Should he be back?
It’s hard to make an argument to NOT keep Johnson moving forward. He’s on a very team-friendly contract, and would come at a very small cost, even accounting for the luxury tax.
On the court, he made his case this season with his overall impact. Ultimately, the team was better with him on the court (-1.1 net rating) vs. when he was off the court (-6.0). How he is used will determine how effective he might be next season, but that will at least in part depend on the ultimate results of the Lakers coaching search.
But he’s still a 25-year-old, uber-athletic forward coming off a productive season on a cheap contract. The Lakers need productive role players moving forward, and Johnson ticks lots of boxes. He should be a Laker again next season.