Stanley Johnson and his Angel From Above

stanley-first-gameWhen Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson heard his name called by Commissioner Adam Silver in June’s NBA Draft, he praised the Lord and then immediately hugged his mum.

It was a touching moment, an embrace both had dreamt of sharing for a long, long time.

Fast forward four months and, while the hugs may be gone, Johnson has been turning heads with his play in the pre-season.

Dare I say it, but the eighth pick from the draft has shown glimpses of genuine Rookie-of-the-Year potential.

In his pre-season debut against Indiana, Johnson had 26 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals, while shooting 8-17 from the field (including 3-6 from three-point range).

He followed that with a stat-sheet stuffing twelve-point, seven-rebound, two-assist, two-block, two-steal performance against Brooklyn and fifteen points, six rebounds and two assists against Milwaukee.

In his first pre-season game as an NBA player, Johnson revelled in the opportunity to defend two-time All-Star Paul George.

“Knowledge is power, and the best teacher is experience. The more experience I get, the faster I learn, and the faster I can be great,” Johnson said post-game.

Oh man, read that quote again.  Here’s a kid with his head screwed on right.

Johnson led the Pistons with 34 minutes against the Pacers. He was third on the team in minutes with 29 against the Nets and then led them again with 29 minutes against the Bucks. Head Coach Stan Van Gundy is clearly keen to get him going straight away.

“He’s got a great toughness and confidence about him and I think that showed,” Van Gundy said after Johnson’s pre-season debut. “So with him we’re working from a pretty good foundation.  He’s got a lot to learn, but you’re working with a very, very good foundation.”

One aspect of his game that has particularly impressed thus far is his shooting efficiency, one of the concerns over his skillset heading into the draft.  Johnson has quickly found his touch on NBA rims, shooting 45 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from long range and 83.3 percent from the free throw line (all higher than his percentages last year at Arizona).

With injuries depleting the Pistons line-up, Van Gundy has been forced to play Johnson some minutes at point guard early in the pre-season. Despite being out of his comfort zone, the rookie has stepped up and filled the void.

“He’s sort of a find-a-way-to-get-it-done type of guy,” Van Gundy said emphatically.

It’s an attribute instilled at a young age by Johnson’s mother, Karen Taylor, herself a Hall-of-Fame collegiate ball player.

“Since he was just 5 years old, I wanted him to take up the slack in the game for the things I didn’t do,” Taylor told ESPN’s Heather Cox on Draft Night. “So I prepared him by making sure that he mentally understood the game, on and off the court. This has been the dream, to make it to the NBA. I’m so excited, I’m so grateful. Oh my God.”

The excitement was palpable.  The pride was overflowing.Karen Taylor 2015 NBA DraftA little over one month after the draft, on August 1 this year, Taylor succumbed to her 20-year battle with breast cancer.  Despite her lengthy struggle, the ending came about quite quickly.

Johnson – so close to his mother – will never have the chance to play an NBA game with his mentor sitting court-side.

The day after her passing, Johnson took to Twitter to share his feelings with the world.

Growing up in rural Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Taylor began hooping by throwing a flat, mouldy ball through a hollowed-out bicycle rim nailed to a tree.

They were humble beginnings but she practised hard and would go on to receive a scholarship to Jackson State (where she once set a school record with 25 rebounds in a game) and play professionally for a while in Italy.

When she eventually returned to America, she moved to Southern California where she would raise Stanley Jr. – her only child – on her own (after her and Stanley’s father got divorced).

“He loved the basketball from the time I put it in his hand,” Taylor once said about her son.

Their one-on-one battles became the stuff of legends.

“I never let him win,” Taylor said. “I’d kick, push, punch. He’d cry. I’d say, ‘I don’t want no girl. Stop crying. Go sit down. Go sit in the corner.’ ”

It was tough love, but as Johnson grew older he better understood and appreciated his mother’s guidance.

“She did things for me you can’t put a price tag on,” he said last year. “She did things I needed, keeping me around the game, keeping me doing the right things, keeping people away. There probably wouldn’t be a basketball-playing Stanley Johnson Jr. today if it wasn’t for my mom putting the ball in my hands at an early age.”

Imagine how proud she would have been this past week, watching her son play so well against NBA competition.

Later this month, Johnson will step onto an NBA floor in a real regular-season game – achieving the dream he’s worked so hard for, for so long.

His mother, of course, won’t be courtside to watch it, but she will be there.

She’ll always be there… pushing, motivating, teaching her son.

Forever in his heart.  His angel from above.

 

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