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Defensive-minded Stanley Johnson is prepared to fight for his place on the Jazz roster

The former No. 8 overall pick is heading into his 8th season, but at just 26 years old Johnson has more left in the tank

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Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little (10) and Utah Jazz forward Stanley Johnson reach for the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.

Craig Mitchelldyer, AP

There hasn’t really been a point in Stanley Johnson’s NBA career when he felt comfortable with his standing. He has continued to feel like he has to fight to prove that he belongs.

“When you’re on a contract year on a yearly basis then you’ve got a job that you have to keep working for like everybody else,” Johnson said after a Utah Jazz’s preseason game in Portland against the Trail Blazers. “Basketball is like, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ Everybody is fighting for that.”

It’s a good point. Basketball often has recency bias and if you’re a role player that hasn’t recently been showing that you are useful and necessary, you can get passed by and left behind pretty quickly.

But Johnson has done some good stuff lately. After joining the Los Angeles Lakers last season as a hardship 10-day player, he ended up signing for the rest of the season with a second year added onto the deal. He proved to be a switchable defender that was so reliable on that side of the ball that the Lakers were willing to overlook some of his offensive limitations.

Had the Lakers not traded Johnson to the Jazz as a part of the deal that sent Patrick Beverley to L.A., Johnson was set up to be a real part of the Lakers rotation. So, what has Johnson done lately? Quite a bit considering where he was.

“Yeah, but if you look at guys just right here like Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Malik Beasley, they have years of consistent play,” Johnson said. “So let’s say I have one. Now let’s make it two. And then maybe in a couple years I can feel like I’ve done something real.”

After being drafted eighth overall in 2015, Johnson has had flashes of what made him a top recruit in high school and then widely regarded as one of the best college players in his draft class. But inconsistency on the offensive end, and inconsistency with opportunities has made his seven years in the NBA seem like a bit of a let down after all the hype.

At just 26 years old though, Johnson is hoping that his story is far from over and he’s ready to start proving that he’s where he belongs and that he deserves to build on what he started to show last year.

Johnson didn’t get into the Jazz’s first preseason game when they played the Toronto Raptors in Edmonton, Alberta. But when he got a chance to play in the second preseason game, his defensive tenacity and production was undeniable.

“Stanley really brought a lot of energy and toughness in particular on the defensive end tonight,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “That’s his identity as a player, that’s how he can help our team, is by being somebody who has a massive impact on the defensive end… He’s really handled himself well, all throughout camp, not only with how he’s played, but how he’s interacted with his teammates, and I was really happy for him tonight.”

As much as it hurts to not play in a game, or to not get a chance to show how much work you’ve put into preparation, Johnson wants to show that he’s going to be an important part of a team even if the minutes aren’t there. By doing that, Johnson is hoping that his value won’t be linked to just one piece of his game.

“I’ve had DNP’s for almost a year at a time before, so at this point I don’t worry about going in the game,” Johnson said. “I play all five positions, so I’ve gotta know every play anyway. I prepare myself like I’m gonna play 40 minutes every night, I worked my butt off before the game even starts, so I’m always prepared to play. But I also don’t want to be a player that just brings value if they’re on the court, if they’re doing well. I want to bring value if I’m not doing well, if I’m not playing. That’s who I want to be as a person.”

That energy has been infectious on and off the court. Hardy, as well as teammate Jordan Clarkson, both said they were impressed with how Johnson played against the Blazers, but also said that Johnson had been playing just as well and was just as impressive throughout training camp, so nobody was surprised by how much of an impact Johnson had on the game, which the Jazz went on to win, 118-101.

“That’s the way that he attacks every single day, he starts on the defensive end with his toughness and physicality and energy and it really permeates throughout the rest of the group,” Hardy said.

As the start of the regular season draws nearer, the Jazz have roster decisions to make. Right now, Johnson’s place on this roster is not guaranteed. The Jazz could choose to waive him. But if the Jazz are looking for a switchable defensive-minded player they could do a lot worse than Johnson, who is ready to fight for his place on this team.