Bread & Butter

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Stanley Johnson, Guard / Detroit Pistons - The Players' Tribune

If there was a way to describe my rookie season, only one word comes to mind: encouraging.

Not good.

Not bad.

Just encouraging.

For rookies, their adjustment to the league is based solely on how their new team plans on using them. Some will be asked to jump-start the rebuilding phase of a franchise right away. Others will have to sit the bench and learn the game before cracking the rotation. Very few rookies experience both extremes.

I’m one of the few.

During my rookie season, I started games and I also got a few DNPs. I also learned that if you talk a big game (particularly during the playoffs), the media will pick you apart if you can’t back it up. (I’ll explain what I mean in a bit.) What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t have the same experience that most of my fellow rookies had this season.

Not by a long shot.

I experienced almost everything a rookie can last season, and found out that the NBA is a grown man’s game. If you want to play in this league, you need to have the ability to make strong plays, especially going to the bucket. It’s funny — when I entered the NBA I knew I wouldn’t be able to use the same moves I had in college, but I figured that if all else failed, I could always go to my “bread and butter.”
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You’re probably wondering what I mean by my bread and butter.

O.K., let me break it down for you.

That’s the move you pull out of your deck like a pair of aces.  That move for me was my ability to get into the lane and finish above the rim.

But boy was I wrong about being able to use it.

About 25 games into the season, I realized that the one move that had always been so easy for me to pull off was now hard as hell.

Like really hard.

This is the NBA. There are so many athletic players who — even when you think you’ve got a step on them, they’re right next to you. When I was at Arizona, the lane was my home. If I had a step on you, I was going to the rack. No question. But after my first couple games in the league, the lane was looking slimmer almost weekly. I couldn’t finish in the lane like I had in the past. But I couldn’t focus on that. I had to focus only on what I could control .

As a rookie, you have to develop a short memory. During the second half of the season I caught the injury bug and was snubbed out of a spot in the rookie game during All-Star weekend. But, I didn’t let that bother me. That was somebody else’s call.

What I could do was stay ready and be aggressive when my number was called. I don’t usually compare my game or my approach with any other player’s, but as a student of the game I know that there is nobody in the league better at being aggressive than Carmelo Anthony.

He’s a beast.

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When Carmelo gets the rock in his hands, he won’t stop coming at you. Whether he’s on the block or on the perimeter, you’re at his mercy on the floor. He’s aggressive throughout the whole game. There are a bunch of players in the league who have a problem with staying aggressive, especially through a slump. But not Melo. That’s what makes him an unreal talent. He’ll keep shooting until he gets into his rhythm.

Playing against him and other great players during the regular season gave me a lot of confidence. With every game, I was picking up on new moves that I could mix in with mine, so when it was time for the playoffs I was battle-tested mentally and physically.

At least that’s what I thought.

The playoffs are a different ballgame. The stakes are higher, the competition is on a different level and there is more fight in teams when the story line is win or go home. There is a level of focus you have to have when you’re in the playoffs — it’s almost like nothing else in the world matters.

There is a level of focus you have to have when you’re in the playoffs — it’s almost like nothing else in the world matters.

Nothing.

I can still remember the night before Game 1 of our first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. We were staying at the Ritz-Carlton right across the street from Quicken Loans Arena. The night before the game I just couldn’t sleep. The only thing on my mind was the game and how I was going to help put my team in position to win.

Earlier that day at shootaround, coach came up and told me who I would be guarding all series. It was LeBron James. I accepted the challenge and understood the magnitude of what was at stake. Not only is LeBron one of the top players in the league, but in the playoffs, he’s always in rare form. So I had to not only be physically prepared, but I also had to mentally get myself in the right frame of mind.

During shootaround, we went over coverages, plays and every possible back-cut that coach Van Gundy could draw up. When I finally got back to my hotel room to sleep, I could only lay in my bed staring at the ceiling. With “the Q” across the street, it felt like I was already in the arena. I imagined myself on the court going through all our defensive schemes and scenarios.

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Now, do I regret what I said about Bron? No. I meant every word I said.

“If LeBron makes a cut to the basket, where am I?”

“Protect the paint.”

“Don’t leave J.R open.”

The ferocity of the NBA playoffs was my Welcome To The NBA Moment. I had no idea how intense it was. I just knew I had the opportunity to go against the best in our conference and compete.

I’ve never been a guy to back down from competition, so win or lose, when I matched up with LeBron I was giving him my best shot. Whether I was staying aggressive on offense, or executing the defensive schemes I had gone over in my head the night before, I was playing to get the best of him.

And that seemed to rub people the wrong way. To everybody watching, as a rookie I wasn’t supposed to challenge LeBron. Sometimes when you’re a rookie, you’re expected to “know your role” and respect the pecking order. But I don’t understand that rule. I live by the mantra, Bring your game, not the name on the back of your jersey. Whenever I step on the court, I think I am the best. I always compete at a high level, no matter who is on the floor.

Now, do I regret what I said about Bron?

No. I meant every word I said.

I wasn’t going to just roll over because he was the best player in the league. At the time, I felt I was making the game hard for him. I never back down from competition and I always feel like players put their shoes on the same way I do.

But was my delivery wrong?

Yes. It was a rookie mistake.

I was letting the game get away from me and making it less about the team. It was about us winning the series not the one-on-one between LeBron and me. After the series was over, my biggest learning experience didn’t come from being on the court. Or the outcome of the series. It came in the locker room with my teammates.

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Particularly Andre Drummond.

He sat me down and helped me realize that in this atmosphere, the team is everything. It’s never about one person. The one thing he told me that will resonate with me for the rest of my career is, “Every game matters.” From the first game to the championship game, everything has a purpose.

If we played every game in the beginning of the season with the same intensity as we did in the playoffs, there would be no way that we would have been an 8 seed.

“Every game matters.” From the first game to the championship game, everything has a purpose.

And that’s right.

The type of fight I saw in my team was unreal. The team was locked in and willing to leave it all on the floor. Whether it was Reggie finishing on tough drives or Dre battling for rebounds with every fiber in his being, my team embodied that old Bad Boys spirit of the early 1990s Pistons, and despite the outcome I was proud of my teammates.

My rookie year was filled with ups and downs and plenty of learning experiences, but it was Coach Van Gundy who mentally challenged me off the court the most. During my exit interview, he asked me a question that I’ve thought about almost every day since I left for the summer.

“Are you afraid to compete with yourself?”

My initial impulse was to say no, but the more I thought about the question the more I realized it was a much deeper than it seemed.

He was asking me if I would be willing to do whatever it takes to raise my game to the next level. Am I ready for the extreme hours in the gym and for pushing myself mentally and physically to reach my potential. There’s only one way to the top and it starts with my nose to the ground. It requires hard work.

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So for the new class of rookies, I have one question for you:

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to reach your full potential?

To play in the NBA, you have to be willing to jump out of your comfort zone and commit yourself to getting better every day. That’s what it will take to be a star and not just another guy on the roster. If you do that, you’ll be just fine.

Oh, I almost forgot something.

When you make it to the NBA and have the opportunity to play against the Detroit Pistons, don’t forget to pay attention to the lane.

That’s my bread and butter.

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