It’s not wise to assume anything about Lakers fans, but, in this case, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they know that they can’t expect 7-9 from the field and 10 points in the fourth quarter on a regular basis from Stanley Johnson. He was a one-man wrecking crew on Monday night for the Los Angeles Lakers. The best player on the court, not named LeBron James, as the Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz, 101-95.
It was a much needed victory for the Lakers after a brutal 37-point loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. They did not hold the lead at any point in that game after the first quarter, and in the second half did not score 20 points as a team in either the third or fourth quarters. The loss was the third in a row for the Lakers, and after the game James tweeted out an apology to Lakers fans.
In that loss to the Nuggets, Johnson only played 13 minutes and was averaging 12.7 minutes per game during the Lakers three-game losing streak. However, he played in three games during the Lakers winning streak prior to that recent skid, and he averaged 21.1 minutes. The Lakers’ front office took notice of his positive impact, and on Monday they decided to ink Johnson to a third 10-day contract. He was originally signed as a replacement player during the Lakers’ COVID outbreak, but he earned his way to a second 10-day contract. At this point, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft might be the player needed to help the Lakers turnaround this mediocre 2021-22 season.
Again, don’t expect Johnson to duplicate these offensive numbers. Rudy Gobert had a rough night, first getting dunked on by Russell Westbrook, and then he could not keep Johnson away from the basket late in the game. When the Jazz went up in the third quarter, it was the two man game with James and Johnson that ignited the Lakers’ fourth-quarter run. While that won’t happen every night, Johnson’s defensive intensity and hustle can be present every night which is something that the Lakers are in desperate need of, especially on the perimeter.
By trading Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and letting Alex Caruso sign with the Chicago Bulls in free agency, the Lakers took two key cogs out of one of the best defenses in the NBA. Offense has been a struggle in recent years, but if their defense is able to keep the game close they have LeBron James in the fourth quarter. This season, the Lakers are 17th in defensive rating at 110.1 points per 100 possessions. They have not been this bad since they were the worst in the NBA during the 2016-17 season — the one that followed the late Kobe Bryant’s retirement.
Johnson provides the Lakers with some much-needed length and athleticism on the perimeter. He recorded two blocks, a steal, and his defense was key to holding the team with the best offensive rating in the NBA to under 100 points. He was all over the court on defense. While not known as a defensive stopper in his young career, during that three-game stretch when he was averaging 21.1 minutes per game the Lakers weren’t giving up 125-plus points in three consecutive contests like they did during their three-game losing streak.
Also, his overall energy is something that the Lakers need as much as his length on the perimeter. It was his toe tapping offensive rebound and assist late in the fourth quarter that was the most important play of the game.
The return of Anthony Davis will be a huge boost to the defense, and with Johnson playing with maximum energy, the Lakers might at least shore up that side of the ball. Their offense is not going to turn into a juggernaut with moves at the trade deadline, but Johnson’s energy is much needed on a team with quite a few players on the other side of 30-years-old.
If Johnson stays healthy through this next 10-day deal, the decision is easy for the Lakers. Take that youth, energy, and desperation of a recent top-10 pick who was reduced to a COVID replacement player, and try to ride that as far away from the play-in tournament as possible.