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Stanley Johnson Reflected On The ‘Constructive’ Conversation When Masai Ujiri Told Him He Was ‘Bad At Basketball’

Every player’s NBA journey is different, but each has a common thread of trying to find one’s place in the league. Some find that early in their careers, but for others it can take some time, time that often isn’t afforded in a league that demands immediate results.

That’s where Stanley Johnson finds himself in his seventh season in the NBA, seizing an opportunity with the Lakers courtesy of what was initially a hardship 10-day that has since become a pair of regular 10-day deals. His future remains in balance, as he’ll likely have to wait until after the trade deadline to find out if he’ll have a roster spot in L.A. or need to latch on elsewhere, but his performance through 10 games (five of which have come in a starting capacity) with the Lakers has more than earned him a spot somewhere in the NBA again.

It’s been quite the journey for Johnson, the former eighth overall pick in the 2015 Draft by Detroit, who has bounced around the league from Detroit to New Orleans to Toronto, struggling to find his place. At the end of his tenure in Toronto, Johnson had a sitdown with team president Masai Ujiri, who gave him the brutal honesty that, as Johnson told Marc Spears of The Undefeated, he needed to hear, as Ujiri flat out told him he was “bad at basketball.”

“That was a real honest conversation. That’s what I needed to hear,” Johnson said. “In the NBA, honesty is not always the first and foremost thing that people want to give you because it’s not the easiest thing to say to people that are professionals. I’ve been playing basketball all my life. I’m pretty damn good at basketball, so to tell me I’m bad at basketball, it’s a hard conversation to have with a professional athlete.

“It takes a different type of man to tell you that to your face and not in a pessimistic way, in a constructive way. What are you going to do? Are you going to take [it poorly] or are you going to do something about it? I felt like I want to do something about it. I’m 25 years old. I know I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been in the league for a long time because I got in early, but I’m not even anywhere close to my prime, anywhere close to the player that I can be in my life.”

Johnson took that message from Ujiri and used it to fuel his work, recognizing that opportunities weren’t going to be there forever. Being a former top-10 pick tends to extend a player’s shelf life when they get off to a poor start, but after six seasons there was no longer a guaranteed roster spot waiting for him. After landing a 10-day in Chicago, only to go into protocols himself, Johnson ended up in L.A. where he’s given the Lakers a much-needed defensive presence, while also being encouraged by his veteran star teammates to attack and be aggressive when the time is right on the offensive end.

The result has been the best stretch of basketball of Johnson’s career, averaging 6.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 20.8 minutes per game, shooting 52.2 percent from the field — by far the best efficiency of his time in the NBA. He’s still not a shooter, but embracing his physicality and becoming a better finisher has taken the pressure off of his jump shot. On the other end, he uses that physicality to bring strong point of attack defense to a team that has desperately needed that, and in 10 games he’s become a fan favorite in L.A., to the point that fans are mad he hasn’t been signed for the season yet.

That will sort itself out eventually, as the Lakers certainly will not rush to a decision on him before the deadline as they want to maintain roster flexibility for trades, but for a player who seemed on his way out of the league, being able to accept some pointed, constructive criticism from Ujiri has seemingly given him new-life in his basketball career.

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