LOS ANGELES – Just six years removed from earning Pac-12 freshman of the year and first team All-Pac-12 honors, Stanley Johnson found himself between hardcourt jobs.
The former NBA Draft Lottery pick – who led an Elite Eight Arizona Wildcats team in scoring in 2015 – saw his 10-day contract with the Chicago Bulls expire in December 2021 before he could play a single game. But a few days later, his hometown team, the Los Angeles Lakers, offered Johnson a similar opportunity, and the 6-foot-6 forward seized the chance to play a new role and hopefully turn his career around.
That dedication was rewarded in January, when the Lakers signed him to a two-year contract with an option for next season.
“People forget that he was a top-10 pick in our league and he’s only 25 years old,” LeBron James said of Johnson in a January postgame news conference. “He’s a guy that’s hungry and a guy that wants to go out and prove he belongs in the NBA.”
His time in the NBA hasn’t been what many expected. It has taken some time to figure out exactly where he belongs in the league, but in statements to the media last week, Johnson said, “God works in mysterious ways.”
After a single, stellar season with the University of Arizona, Johnson was selected by the Detroit Pistons as the eighth overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. In spring 2019, he was dealt to the Pelicans in a three team trade.
After the 2019 season, Johnson signed a two year deal with the Toronto Raptors, but in summer 2021, he was without a team.
His NBA point production was far from what it was at Arizona. Johnson averaged 7 points per game as a Piston, 4 as a Raptor and 5 as a Pelican.
The challenge of being without a team provided Johnson an opportunity, former Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack said.
“To his credit, a lot of young men would kind of fold the tent,” Pasternack said. “He worked very, very hard off the court and on the court to get back into the NBA.”
Johnson had a preseason stop with the Bulls before signing with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate. In response to a string of productive play, Chicago offered him another chance with a 10-day contract in December, but Johnson was placed in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, which kept him from seeing any action.
Soon after his Bulls contract expired, the Lakers offered Johnson 10 days to prove his worth. In five games, Johnson averaged 25 minutes and scored at least seven points in four games. His contributions were rewarded with a second 10-day contract, which led to a third consecutive 10-day deal.
“The more he’s with our program, with our team, we’re learning more and more what he can do,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said after Johnson’s 15-point, five-rebound showing in a win against the Jazz in January.
Johnson’s potential with the Lakers resonated with more than just the coaching staff and front office.
“He’s picked up our system really fast,” James said. “He brought in some toughness at the wing position and also some defensive toughness. It’s been great basketball.”
Since his arrival in L.A., Johnson has focused on how he fits into the veteran-laden team and how he can add value in his own way.
“I think that’s my job … to bring energy and to bring toughness and just bring intangible things,” Johnson said after the Utah win. “Through my experience, I’ve learned those things help you win games.”
Although working 10-day stints without job security was difficult, Johnson appreciated the opportunity.
“It’s been an amazing experience. … I can’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said in January.
As Johnson’s play provided a spark for L.A., the Lakers’ notoriously vocal fan base urged the team to sign him long term.
— ??????' ??? (@_Talkin_NBA) January 18, 2022
SIGN STANLEY JOHNSON FOR REST OF YEAR @Lakers
— RUI FANATIC (@therealselena23) December 30, 2021
That wish was realized Jan. 26 when the Lakers signed Johnson, who’s from Fullerton, to a two-year contract with a team option for the 2022-23 season.
Johnson’s style of play developed in Southern California’s powerhouse prep basketball programs. Lavette Parker, a former high school teammate at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, helped Johnson lead the Monarchs to a 69-2 record over two varsity seasons together.
Despite all the challenges Johnson has faced, when Parker saw his “big brother” finally sign with the Lakers, it was easy to know why.
“You could say it’s all about faith, but Stanley has always been the one to know what the answer is,” Parker said. “You could really dissect the game … but it doesn’t matter. He just knows his role and he plays it very well.”
Mater Dei head coach Gary McKnight and Johnson still keep in touch frequently. McKnight, who has coached hundreds of players since his first season with the Monarchs in 1982, was not shy about Johnson’s abilities.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever had, and we’ve had nine kids go to the NBA,” McKnight said. “He won four state championships in four years.”
The Lakers contract made McKnight proud, but he said Johnson’s tenure with the Lakers is different from any other NBA stop in his career.
“It’s nice because he’s surrounded by friends … he’s got people to lean on,” McKnight said. “I think he’s in a comfort zone right now, and I think that’s a huge thing for him.”
Regardless of whether he stays with the Lakers past this contract, this period will prove to be a huge stepping stone for Johnson’s career, McKnight said.
Pasternack, now the head basketball coach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, knows what has helped Johnson persevere in his NBA dream.
“What makes him different than everybody else, is he has supreme confidence in his ability, he has extreme coachability,” he said. “With those two characteristics, along with the love of the game, that’s made him successful.”