Milwaukee Bucks: Grades and reactions for the Stanley Johnson trade

DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 4: (Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 4: (Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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TORONTO, ON – NOVEMBER 14: (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON – NOVEMBER 14: (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

What the Bucks traded for

Let’s start with the concrete element of this rather than what the Bucks will hope they’ve traded for.

If nothing else, Johnson will act as a four-month flyer on a high potential player, who may also be better equipped to help the Bucks given their roster construction. If things pan out well during that short span, Johnson is a restricted free agent and the Bucks will have the option to retain him into the future.

It’s the option element in that which is really most important, though, considering Milwaukee’s more pressing free agency concerns. Facing up to all non Giannis Antetokounmpo starters hitting free agency, the Bucks could use all the cap savings they can find. Declining to extend a qualifying offer to Johnson would give the Bucks an extra $3.5 million of space to add to what was opened up with December’s dumping of Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson‘s salaries.

So, if nothing else, the Bucks have improved their cap flexibility slightly, rather than having a player who didn’t feature prominently in their plans eating into that cash.

Of course, Jon Horst and the Bucks’ key decision-makers will be hoping this deal can amount to more than that too.

Johnson was a highly touted prospect coming out of Arizona, as evidenced by his standing as the eighth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Anaheim native, who was widely regarded as a five-star recruit coming out of high school, was viewed as a particularly intriguing prospect due to his physical tools.

Combining a well-rounded skill-set with a 6’7″, 240lbs frame, and a 6’11” wingspan ahead of the draft, Johnson screamed out potential defensive difference maker.

In reality, consistency has been an issue for Johnson since landing in the NBA, much like the player he was traded for. Johnson has certainly demonstrated the ability to make game-changing plays on the defensive end, and there’s no challenge that he will back down from — as he proved in his rookie season by guarding guarding LeBron James and trying to start a war of words with the league’s most famous player during a playoff series.

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say Johnson is all bluster. Johnson’s reputation as a defender who rises to the challenge against the league’s best persisted among the Detroit media. Notably, considering the challenges that could lie ahead for the Bucks, one of the most significant instances on that front this season came as Johnson shut down Kawhi Leonard to ice a Pistons win over the Raptors back in November.

Providing his own comment on what Pistons coach Dwane Casey deemed to be “some of the best individual defense I’ve seen this year”, Ansar Khan of Michigan Live described Johnson’s contributions in closing out that game as follows:

"“Leonard scored 26 points, mostly while guarded by Reggie Bullock earlier in the game. Johnson matched up with Leonard in the fourth quarter, when the Raptors star committed five turnovers, the last one with two seconds remaining when he dribbled the ball off his foot with a chance to hit the winning shot.”"

Speaking of that game to Rod Beard of the Detroit News, Johnson, himself, revealed that Leonard is one of his favorite players and he believes he has a particularly strong feel for his game as a result:

"“I just try to play as hard as I can. In my eyes, he’s top two (among stars) in the NBA, a guy that I watch a lot. I try to model my game after him, so I guess I overwatch him.”"

Of course, Johnson’s story in Detroit was ultimately marked by his inability to bring that level of play on a nightly basis.

In particular, Johnson’s offense has struggled to show up even for impressive one-off performances. The 22-year-old may be the perfect modern NBA wing in so many ways, but in lacking any semblance of shooting ability he falls painfully short in his present form.

Johnson is a career 29.2 percent three-point shooter, and with 774 attempts behind him already, that can’t be chalked up to small sample size.

Perhaps the Bucks’ famed development staff can help Johnson improve on that front, while just as important might be a head coach who believes in him. Johnson spoke positively of his experience with Dwane Casey early in the season, having endured a rocky relationship with Stan Van Gundy in the past. If Budenholzer could help to boost Johnson’s confidence, maybe a better and more consistent player is waiting to be unleashed.

For the meantime, Johnson remains raw and potential-filled, while already possessing some traits that could get him on the court. As Detroit Bad Boys’ David Fernandez wrote last week, while declaring it was time for the Pistons and Johnson to go their separate ways:

"“[Johnson has] still got that all-NBA level of defense, and is one of the few guys you can feel confident in when he defends the Kawhi Leonards and LeBron James’ of the world (as confident as possible at least), but being a plus defender and disastrous net negative on offense is not sustainable in today’s NBA.”"

The Bucks have traded one project for another, and they’ll hope to get a little bit more out of this one in the months ahead.