Mind Games

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

A few days after last season was over, I stopped by the Palace to sit down with Coach Stan before I headed out West for the summer. The moment I walked into our practice facility, it felt like nobody was even in the building. The court and our team room were cleaned out and the hallways were so quiet you could hear a dime drop on the other end. But as I got closer to Coach’s office, I started to hear distinct voices.

“Drummond with the rebound.”

“Let’s go De-troit!”

“Stanley Johnson with the pass.”

As soon as I walked around the corner into his office, there was Coach, hunched over in front of the television watching clips of game film from our first-round playoff series against the Cavs. For the first couple of seconds that I was in the room, he was glued to the TV. He didn’t even make eye contact with me. He was focused on studying the game — our mistakes, his mistakes, everything that we could have done better. Coach was so locked in, it looked like he hadn’t left his office since the series had ended. There were still notes and box scores from the playoffs sticking out at all angles from under the folders on his desk. Once he finally noticed me, we began to talk about my individual goals for the summer, as well as the direction we wanted the team to be headed going into the next season.

He didn’t even make eye contact with me. He was focused on studying the game — our mistakes, his mistakes, everything that we could have done better.

A couple of days later, I was on a flight back to California. As I looked out the window from 30,000 feet in the air, I was deep in thought as I kept going back over my conversation with Coach Stan. His dedication and attention to detail was incredible. There are really no days off for that guy. I was so inspired that after my plane touched down and I got settled in, I decided to watch some film. I wound up watching every game, from preseason through the playoffs.

There was one game — and one play in particular — that stood out to me.  

We were up 26–25 near the end of the first quarter of Game 4 of our first-round series against the Cavaliers. I was at the top of the key with the rock in my hands. Richard Jefferson had switched on a screen, so Kevin Love was my new defender. He was playing me a bit to my left, and with the clock winding down and Iman Shumpert playing the lane, driving to the basket was out the question. So I went for the next big thing — my jump shot. This worked in my favor, because the first thing I noticed about Kevin’s positioning was that he was on his heels, shuffling.

So I took a few beats to get ready.

One dribble.

Two dribbles.

Three dribbles.

Love was shuffling his feet and backing off slightly, so there was about six to seven feet of space between us. I knew exactly what to do — pull-up jumper.

Bucket. Got Him.

See, some people think of basketball as a free-flowing game, but everything changed for me when I started to think of it as more of a constantly changing puzzle. The more I watched that specific play, the more I found myself thinking of matchups and spaces on the floor in terms of distances and angles. Estimating how far a defender is from me, as well as how far he is from the hoop, dictates what I’m going to do. Whether I drive, shoot a jumper or pass, everything depends on how well I read the floor –– how well I gauge the positioning of my defender and how it will affect the angle I can take to the basket.

Whether I drive, shoot a jumper or pass, everything depends on how well I read the floor –– how well I gauge the positioning of my defender and how it will affect the angle I can take to the basket.

That element of court awareness goes unnoticed by many players, especially by rookies transitioning to their second year in the league. But that clip changed everything for me. I wanted my court awareness to be second nature. But I knew that if I wanted that to happen, I needed to push myself to get better. A lot better.

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For NBA players, summers are critical — especially for rookies and second-year players. So I didn’t want to waste no time. The gym was calling.

It didn’t matter if I was winning the championship in the Drew League or doing two-a-days in Orange County with my hometown coaches. If a gym was open I was in there breaking my game down to the basics. Whether it was my shooting mechanics (with both hands), learning defensive principles or watching hours of game film, there wasn’t a facet of my game that I didn’t work on improving. But the one part of the game I worked on most was my court awareness.

In this league, your ability to use your IQ is critical. You have to be able to read the floor on offense and defense, be aware of mismatches and figure out how to expose them to the best of your ability. Take Kobe. On offense, he recognized mismatches and found holes in defenses, and used what he saw to choose which side of the court he wanted to operate on. But, that’s just the offensive side. On defense, Kevin Garnett’s intuition was uncanny. The instant a team got into its offense, it was like he already knew the play they were going to run. He would call out screens and open men, and then direct his teammates to those spots on the court. The ability to see the whole –– not just what’s in front of you — is what distinguishes a great player from an average one.

And I don’t want to just be average.  

Court awareness — having the ability to recognize defensive schemes and anticipate offensive opportunities — is very analytical, but in many ways it’s also similar to how an artist visualizes a painting before putting a brush to the canvas.

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Before they start to work artists visualize everything, from the images they’re going to depict to the color of paint they’re going to use. And being on the court — especially with the ball in your hands — it’s the same way. When a team is running a certain type of zone defense, you are recognizing the weak spots and planning how to take advantage of them. Same with defense. If a player is scoring from one side of the floor, you have to identify the right defensive position to stop him. It’s all about having a vision and creating an opportunity out of the situation that’s in front of you.

So I made sure during my workouts last summer that my trainers threw every possible situation my way to prepare me for what I would see this season.

My trainer, Shea Frazee, and some guys in the gym would run defensive coverages and I would have to read and anticipate what was going to happen. If they threw man-to-man defense at me, and my man was guarding me to my left, I had to estimate right away how far he was from the basket and decide whether I needed to either drive at the defender or pump-fake and get him out of position so that I could drive to the right. The game became all about angles for me. It got to the point where that sort of decision-making became automatic. Shea threw everything at me, but it wasn’t long before I was solving the coverages like a puzzle.

It was all a learning process, and my time in Las Vegas with the U.S. men’s select team in mid-July was like going to graduate school.

The select team’s job was to scrimmage against the men’s national team in advance of the Rio Olympics. Day in and day out, I was competing against some of the best pros in the game, and playing with some of the most talented young players in our sport. So it was no surprise how competitive everyone was during practice. At any given moment, I would find myself guarding one of the league’s best forwards.

Carmelo Anthony.

Draymond Green.

Jabari Parker.

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It was all a learning process, and my time in Las Vegas with the U.S. men’s select team in mid-July was like going to graduate school.

Stanley Johnson

The list goes on. And playing with all those guys made me realize even more just how important it is to see the whole floor, especially for a forward. Every chance I got, I was asking Melo and Draymond for advice. Draymond would show me some of his best pick-and-pop spots on the floor while Melo would talk to me about how he gets people involved while also creating opportunities for himself. But I may have benefitted the most from watching the way Coach Popovich ran his system.

On his Spurs teams, the power forward is considered the coach on the floor. Take Tim Duncan, for example. When he had the ball in his hands, his ability to dictate the offense and control the pace of the game was far beyond what you’d normally see from a forward. He could see which spots were open on the floor for San Antonio’s guards to attack from. But Duncan’s greatest skill, was his ability to be a vocal leader. And playing for Coach Pop, that’s a skill you need to possess. People tend to overlook that about his genius: He’s a top-notch communicator.

And playing for Coach Pop, that’s a skill you need to possess. People tend to overlook that about his genius: He’s a top-notch communicator.

He always stresses that element of the game as an important key to being productive on the court. And at any moment during practice in Vegas, and especially during the live scrimmages, you could hear Coach Popovich yelling from the sidelines:

“Talk to each other!”

“Call out your man!”

“What defense are we running?”

Most of the time, he was one of the loudest people on the floor. It was awesome to experience, and it helped me to realize that I still have a ton of work to do.

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The way I see it, this season really comes down to one thing.

Accountability.

After we were swept out of the playoffs last April, I remember the walk back to the locker room. I remember the faces of our fans at the Palace. The memory of being in our locker room with everybody’s head down sulking is something I’ll never forget. We had each gone through a strenuous summer of workouts, and then fought tooth and nail during the regular season to make the playoffs and grab the No. 8 seed — only to get swept. It was a tough pill to swallow.

But it didn’t burn till we saw the Cavaliers raise the Larry O’Brien trophy, and then watched the parade coverage and the fans of Cleveland embracing a historic moment. That moment is what we want for the fans of Detroit. It’s been 12 years since the Pistons raised a banner in Auburn Hills. Fans here are itching for that feeling again, and I honestly feel this team can give it to them.

It’s been 12 years since the Pistons raised a banner in Auburn Hills. Fans here are itching for that feeling again, and I honestly feel this team can give it to them.

We’ve embraced that playoff series loss, and it has sparked a fire in all of us. To put it simply, getting swept was totally unacceptable. It’s funny, you always hear guys say that making it to the playoffs — or getting out the first round — is a team objective.

Like that’s it? That’s all you want to do? Just getting a taste of the playoffs is satisfying? I can’t speak for anybody else, but I can say this on behalf of my team: We want more.

Scratch that. We want it all.

The last thing on our mind is being pretty good. We want the O’Brien Trophy. We want everyone to understand that this franchise can run with the best of them.

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To do that, we need to be consistent. We can’t have nights where we are tired or not putting forth our best effort. Every time we step on the court, we have to play with a playoff mentality. All 82-games. It has to be do-or-die every night.

We are a matchup terror for any team in the NBA. But it won’t matter if we don’t give our best effort. There were many nights last season when we were losing to .500 teams because of the level of our effort. We can’t have hiccups like that this year. If we give our best effort and get blown out, I can accept that. But losing because we don’t get back on D, or because we aren’t executing on offense … that’s a major problem.

So, yeah, it’s all about accountability.

And it started this summer with our core players taking the reins. Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond have all been in the gym challenging each other — but most of all challenging themselves. Take Dre and his foul shooting, for example. He practiced it all summer, and if he makes three to five more free throws per game that will only make us better. But he’s not the only one. Whether it’s Tobias working on his post game, KCP working on his touch behind the arc or even the rookies challenging the vets, it’s clear that everyone has the same mentality this season.

That mentality is: Do everything you can to help us win.

Scratch that. Win big.

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