Pistons take Arizona’s Johnson with No. 8 pick in draft

Stanley Johnson could fill a need for the Pistons, who have said the only opening in their starting lineup is at small forward.

Brad Penner

AUBURN HILLS — The Detroit Pistons surprised draft observers by selecting Arizona’s Stanley Johnson with the eighth pick of Thursday’s draft.

Pistons coach/president Stan Van Gundy felt that Johnson was an easy selection, given the current style of NBA basketball.

"What we liked the most about Stanley is his versatility," Van Gundy said. "If you look at the way the league plays now, teams are going to throw a lot of different lineups and a lot of different sizes at you, and he can handle that.

"Not only can he play the 2 and the 3, but if a team goes small-ball against us, he can guard a 4. He’s even guarded some point guards."

The move fills Detroit’s hole at small forward, but Van Gundy passed on Duke’s Justise Winslow, who most observers had rated ahead of Johnson at the position. 

Both players are highly rated defensive prospects, with Winslow having more speed, while Johnson is a strong player who is able to get the ball to the rim. Winslow is a better 3-point shooter, something that might have been expected to push the Pistons in his direction, but Johnson’s 6-foot-11 wingspan might have been the difference.

"I like Justise a lot — he’s a very good player and a great kid — but our decision didn’t come down to he and Stanley," Van Gundy said. "I think people see the NCAA tournament, and they see Duke playing in the championship game, and Justise doing a nice job, and they substitute that for the kind of breakdowns that we do on people’s games."

Van Gundy said that he still expects the Pistons to go after a starting small forward in free agency, but he expects Johnson to contribute as a rookie.

"This kid has been a winner everywhere he has been – he won four straight state titles in California, and that’s not exactly a small, out-of-the-way state," he said. "Then he went to Arizona, joined a team that was returning four starters from an Elite Eight run, and led the team in scoring.

"He’s got a little work to do on his shooting, and that’s going to take a while, but he’s going to be a good scorer and a very physical defender."

Johnson certainly has the confidence to make it in the NBA, telling ESPN moments after the pick that he thinks he is "the best player in the draft," and that his goal for the upcoming season is to win the Rookie of the Year award.

The 19-year-old — he won’t turn 20 until during next season’s playoffs — also did his best to win over the local fans by dropping a "Detroit vs. Everybody" reference into the interview.

"I’m super happy to be going to Detroit, because this is a situation where I know what they need and I know what I can give them," he said in a conference call with the local media. "This is a team with great young players, and we can make the playoffs right away."

In the second round, the Pistons selected shooting guard Darrun Hilliard out of Villanova. A rare four-year college player, Hilliard brings the two things Van Gundy wants — 3-point shooting and defense. He was a 40 percent shooter from outside the arc in his last two years with the Wildcats, hitting six in a NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina State, and projects as an above-average wing defender.